The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
Last week, a Facebook post went viral. I'm making the moderately large assumption that it was real, and everything in the screenshots that made the rounds was true and posted in good faith and not an attempt to create "fake news." Also, to warn you before you click through, there's some naughty language in those screenshots.
Anyhow, this began as a celebratory post by someone, clearly not a fan of outgoing President Barack Obama, linking to news the GOP-led U.S. Senate started the process of repealing Obamacare.
The "Obamacare" part is important because, within just a few comments, that anonymous Facebook poster revealed both that he gets his health insurance through an Affordable Care Act insurance exchange and that he didn't know that Obamacare and the ACA are the exact same thing.
His ignorance is what's funny – not "ha-ha" funny, of course, but "oh, man, I hope he doesn't have a pre-existing condition that will kill him once his health insurance is revoked" funny. And funny makes for good viral stories.
To me, though, what stood out in his inadvertent admission of ignorance is something else entirely. "My health insurance is through the ACA," he wrote, "so I'm definitely not the kind of person to look down on others for needing help."
Oh, man, that is some serious cognitive dissonance. I mean, we're almost at Craig T. "Coach" Nelson levels of dissonance, or maybe even "keep your government hands off my Medicare" levels. At least a seven or eight on the meter, though, right?
Cognitive dissonance is what happens when you have conflicting information streams mingling in your brain. For example, you might, to pick a random example, be buying your health insurance from an ACA exchange, but you also hate Obama and his stupid Obamacare. There are two ways you can deal with this conflict: You can change one of your beliefs ("You know what? This Obamacare ain't so bad!") or your can start believing things that are not true ("We're talking about Obamacare, not the ACA.").
Obviously, this random Facebook guy picked door number two. It happens a lot. It probably even happens to me, although people who suffer this way usually don't see it for themselves. I'm sure someone will come along shortly in the comments to point out my flaws for me. Thanks in advance.
I bring cognitive dissonance to the table this week not because one guy on one social media website is unimpeachable evidence of a 63 million-person mass delusion. However, there does seem to be a bit of a trend, especially when it comes to Obama's signature health care legislation.
Every recent poll shows that the law's provisions are popular, some wildly so. The current insurance premium costs are right about where the Congressional Budget Office predicted they would be at this time seven years ago when the bill was passed. And about 20 million people are getting care (or at least have insurance coverage) who did not before the law passed.
The ACA has not blown open the budget deficit – the opposite, in fact, because the law raises revenue through tax provisions and more people have kept their employer-paid insurance than originally expected so subsidy payments are lower than expected. And despite what serial prevaricator Paul Ryan may say, the ACA has made Medicare's finances stronger, not weaker.
But repeal fever is strong among Republican voters and electeds, and it is almost entirely based on a dissonant sense of resentment. As I have written here previously, and as many other news organizations have reported since the November election, no small number Republican votes this past fall were spurred by a sense of resentment, a sense that "those people" had been getting one over on us all and now it's our turn.
That last link, for example, features two women who "commiserate ... about those who take advantage of government aid." Drug test 'em, says one, and the other complains about "Chicago people" (wink, wink) coming to their small Iowa town not for its stunning views of the Mississippi river but for "higher benefits."
One of those women is 70. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say she is probably happy to collect Social Security benefits and enjoys the generosity of Medicare. I am also sure that she, like our Facebook guy, does not begrudge government help to those whom she thinks really need it. But her dissonance is being resolved through a falsehood – that some groups of people deserve help and other groups don't – rather than by adjusting her understanding of the facts.
Basically since this country's beginning, the ruling majority has crafted imaginary narratives of undeserving minority groups ripping off the "real Americans," and we've pretty uniformly voted in ways that would keep those minority groups down, from our nation's founding documents to the collected works of Bill O'Reilly.
This exact thing has always bothered me, because my own (very white, very not-urban) family members for years have used this kind of special pleading to resolve their own dissonance. My staunchly Republican mother spent much of her life receiving Social Security disability insurance. She had a major congenital heart condition and often simply could not work, and the payments were justified. This is true, despite some public opinion otherwise, for almost everyone else on disability. The fraud rate is less than one percent, and it's more likely that the government underpays a legitimate recipient than pays a fraudulent claim.
My parents for a time owned a duplex renting exclusively to people getting federal housing assistance, at the time known as Section Eight vouchers, because the government was less likely to miss a payment than "some people" were. Other relatives of mine received food stamps, collected farm subsidies, spent time on welfare and more, always with a firm belief that they, unlike others, truly deserved the help. And always voting for the party that promised to root out the "welfare queens" and other undeserving moochers getting the very same benefits.
This is how we get to our poor viral Facebook man. He's a good guy. He pays his taxes. He feeds his family. He needs help getting health insurance – I mean, don't we all have one or two struggles in our lives? – but he won't touch that Obamacare! The ACA marketplace is where it's at, and it has nothing to do with that stupid healthcare.gov!
As I said last week (in a column whose sole comment as I write this is a pitch-perfect rant against various undeserving groups), repealing Obamacare only benefits the rich and the super-rich. If you're living in a household making more than $250,000 this year, or with more than $250,000 of investment income, congrats! This repeal will be good for your bottom line and, hey, it seems really unlikely you'll ever need to shop for insurance on an ACA marketplace anyway.
Okay, I'm exaggerating a little about how narrow the benefits of repeal would be. Repeal will also directly benefit people who visit tanning salons. Hip hip hooray!
But really, is it the people who rake in quarter-million dollar salaries who deserve "help" in the form of tax cuts? Our cognitive dissonance sufferers, even while looking at their own paltry paychecks and letters from insurance companies revoking coverage, are likely to say yes. They have fully swallowed the falsehood that "job creators" are some kind of angry volcano gods who must be continually appeased with the sacrifice of government revenue lest they ship your job to Mexico. Mexico, as you are no doubt aware, is just packed full of "those people" who already get more than they deserve. They can afford a wall!
I don't have the formula that will make dissonance sufferers choose door number one and start revising their beliefs to fit known facts. Indeed, the more researchers study it, the more it seems like presenting people who believe a lie with the truth just reinforces the lie. I feel like there ought to be an answer, but there just isn't.
So for now, I want to wish that poor man on Facebook, and everyone else among the ACA's 20 million beneficiaries, good luck. You will need it.