01/08/2014 08:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reality Enters the Political Conversation

The dawning of the new year may usher in a seismic shift for at least two subjects in the political arena, because for the first time both proponents and opponents will be forced to frame their arguments based on actual, verifiable reality rather than just wildly overblown hopes or fears. The outcomes are uncertain at this point (since the new year is barely a week old), but the shift towards discussing hard data and facts rather than "this or that might happen" should be a welcome one, if only because we've had so much previous speculation (both good and bad) on the issues of Obamacare and marijuana legalization. From now on, asserting the inevitability of any particular outcome will become impossible, because there will be proof rather than just unfounded supposition. Which should be a welcome change to anyone wishing to intelligently weigh the benefits and drawbacks rather than just exchange political spin.

This should come as a disappointment to the news media, who always prefer to engage in political shouting matches rather than doing the hard work of journalism. Getting blowhards to scream at each other is so much easier than digging through data and finding out what is really going on in the world, after all. Headlines such as "World Did Not End" or "Rioting In Streets Failed To Happen" are just not as much fun to write as "Some Predict Disaster," after all. This will be most acutely felt by pundits who make their living repeating the conventional inside-the-Beltway wisdom, which usually can be summed up as "Well, everyone at the cocktail parties I go to thinks...." But we've now moved beyond such lazy analysis, into the realm of the factual. This is not to say the political spin won't disappear, of course. But from now on, some fact-checking will be in order to either bolster or refute such spin.

Obamacare is now halfway through its initial "open enrollment" signup period. No matter what you think of the program, more and more people will be affected by it in the upcoming year. Anecdotal evidence will still abound, but these can now be measured against statistical data showing how representative such anecdotes may be. Republicans in particular have made no secret that this will be a large part of their midterm election campaign. Democrats, however, will increasingly be able to point to hard numbers to show the successes of the program. This already seems to be happening, as Democrats have begun pointing out that roughly nine million people now have health insurance that would not have been possible without Obamacare (two million who signed up for private plans on the exchanges, three million young adults who have stayed on their parents' policies, and four million who have signed up for Medicaid). That number is never going to shrink, either -- as time goes by, it will only grow. This is one of the best examples of reality and data entering the discussion where it wasn't previously available. The anti-Obamacare folks have been pointing out for months now that something like five or six million people got cancellation notices from their insurers -- but again, this is arguing about actual data and not some sort of projections or educated guesses about "what might happen."

Both sides will vigorously argue the validity of the data, of course. The pro-Obamacare folks will point out that of the people who got cancellation notices, most were moved onto different plans by their insurers and out of the rest many were able to sign up for other plans on the exchanges -- meaning that the total number the antis are quoting doesn't equate to "total people who no longer have health insurance." The antis will counter that the Medicaid numbers are for eligibility and not hard signup numbers, and will quibble about the people signed up on their parents' plans. But such a back-and-forth is now possible, rather than either pie-in-the-sky or fearmongering projections of "what might happen." That's a welcome change, or it should be, for the general public.

On marijuana legalization, once all the juvenile "Rocky Mountain high" stories die down in the media, we will finally have a legal marketplace for adult recreational marijuana as one of those "laboratories of democracy" experiments. This has been dreamed about for decades by legalization proponents, and has equally been feared by the drug warriors. Now both sides will have to take a deep breath (so to speak), sit back, and see how things play out. Will all the benefits promised by the pro-legalization side appear as promised? Will all the disastrous consequences warned of by the antis inevitably ensue? Well, we're about to find out.

Again, anecdotal evidence will abound, no doubt. The spin on the subject will not disappear overnight. But later this year Washington state will also join in the experiment, providing even more hard data as to how the scheme will work (or fail). But for the first time -- in pretty much everyone's lifetime, mind you -- we are about to see whether adult citizens can be trusted to use this mind-altering substance without the fear of police, jail, fines, legal fees, forced rehab, and all the rest of the governmental penalties which have been imposed for the past eight decades. Can it be made to work? Will people use it responsibly? Will there be unintended consequences? And how, exactly, will a recreational marketplace with heavy taxes coexist with a medicinal marketplace where the same substance is available untaxed? These are all questions which, up until this point, have been purely theoretical. No longer. When the data begins pouring in, we'll be able to see if legalizing marijuana is a viable proposition or not. Again, for the first time.

On both political issues, the fight between the pros and the cons will not disappear immediately, of course. The spin will become even more furious, as both sides cherry-pick data to prove the righteousness of their position. But, over time, a broader consensus will become apparent, at least to the casual observer. The old battles of "what might happen" will fade, while new battles about proper implementation will spring up. Both the scaremongering and the rosy-tinted optimism will morph into more realistic discussions of what has actually happened, rather than what could happen.

That is a powerful and notable milestone, and one that rarely happens in our modern politics. Something new has been implemented -- something radically different than what preceded it. Political theories are about to be tested by reality. To me, that is a welcome change, no matter what the actual outcome is in either case. Because with all the hot air expended in politics, we will now be able to see whose predictions were closer to reality. The debate will shift in fundamental and profound ways, no matter what the results turn out to be. After years (decades, even) of having nothing but the sheerest speculation to argue about, we will now be able to examine how the experiments turn out. Which will be a welcome change, to put it mildly, to those who prefer a reality-based discussion over endless ideological spin.


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