04/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When the Whole Is Less Than The Sum of its Parts

It's becoming more and more obvious that most people--even the very politically active--are poorly informed. Now, before you go on the offensive, attacking me by saying "Oh, so you know what's best for everybody and if they disagree with you they must be poorly informed?" let me stop you. Yes, I got into this line of work because I wanted to further our understanding of how the system does and does not work, so that I could play a part in improving it, so that I could in my own way, help people. Of course that assumes that people want to be helped. The way things are playing out, however, it seems more and more like people don't want to be helped and would prefer to be left alone. I am totally okay with that--pushing my agenda on others is not something I've ever enjoyed--as long as the people are making an informed decision.

Now, again, before you go hurling accusations and "know-it-all, out-of-touch, liberal elite" labels my way, here's the key point: People are not poorly informed because they disagree with me. They are poorly informed as evidenced by the fact that they disagree with themselves. As shown in the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll, Americans strongly support the provisions of health care reform at the same time that many of those same people oppose reform as a whole. It's like a prospective home buyer being shown one thing at a time and saying, "I love the bedrooms, the living room is great, the kitchen is state-of-the-art, the bathrooms are spacious, even the yard is well-landscaped." Then, when they're asked if they're interested in buying, they respond "I hate this house." The only way that can make sense is if a person sees only the house and fails to understand that all the components they loved actually come with it. In this analogy, such a scenario seems outlandish, but given the complexities of the legislative process--and even of the text of the legislation itself--it's not surprising that people are uninformed about what provisions health care reform legislation actually contains.

Starting from the point of that complexity, opponents of reform have done everything in their power not to clarify, but rather to obstruct, the facts. Talking heads have generated almost more misinformation than I really thought possible. And a lot of people believed them, which isn't hard to understand, because if you don't have access to--or don't understand--the actual information, you have no basis for comparison that would permit you to recognize misinformation for what it is. All you see is the house from the street. If you had the time, and requisite background to get into the house and look around, you'd see that it's a great place to live. Since you don't, you stand outside looking on while someone who really doesn't want you to buy the house doesn't tell you what it's actually like inside, but fills your head with ideas of a dilapidated shack--a deteriorating interior.

As much as I wish it wasn't true, Americans hold opinions for some pretty stupid reasons. We vote for candidates who are good looking over candidates who are more plain in appearance. We vote for candidates who we think are "like us" or who "make us feel good" even though neither of those things is especially relevant to governing. We like to watch reality TV and make snap judgments about people, places, and things, which we ultimately know very, very little about. We all like to think of ourselves as above average--despite the blatant mathematical impossibility of that ever being true. And we love to surround ourselves with people whose ideas support our own--whether they are valid or not. It's a simple way to operate, sure, but it's not very informed.

As the Kaiser Poll results show, people are presently uninformed about the specific provisions of health care reform and this is having a big impact on their support for reform as a whole. Once people know what reform would do, they tend to support it in droves. Thus, the biggest obstacle to enacting health reform in our time may not be--as we are taught--the political chokepoints in Congress or the powerful influence of health care lobbying dollars, but rather an unenlightened populace, with notions so misguided that the very things they are opposing aren't even on the table from the beginning.

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