At a recent town hall meeting in my home congressional district, Tennessee’s 4th, Rep. Lincoln Davis was caught between a rock and a hard place. A Democrat representing one of the country’s reddest regions, the NRA gives him an “A,” he strongly opposes abortion, and the Issues section of his Web site places “sportsmen’s rights” above education, immigration or the economy. When it comes to big Democratic issues, Davis’ work is cut out for him: to convince his constituents that supporting his party does not mean abandoning his district. In the case of health care reform, that means executing positively labyrinthine obfuscation and misdirection.
At this August gathering, Davis tackled the outrage that so many members of Congress faced this summer. With constituents on the offensive, Davis seemed willing to say anything to placate the crowd. Among his more brow-furrowing utterances was an assertion that David B. Coe, an author and friend, reported on his blog: “There are 47 million people in this country who don’t have health insurance, and to tell you the truth, I think most of them want it that way.” Now it’s hardly unusual to hear Davis toe the (Republican) party line for the benefit of his constituents — in this case drawing on claims accepted as truth on Fox News. The accuracy of Davis’ assertion is questionable (for a discussion of the data, see http://www.factcheck.org/2009/06/the-real-uninsured).
But politics aside, it’s oddly unscientific for a congressman to use the phrase “in my opinion” to summarize the sentiments of 46 million people. I doubt that Davis has spoken with more than a handful of constituents who are happily without health insurance, yet he confidently asserts his imagination as fact. Not that we haven’t come to expect criminal misrepresentation in the political rhetoric of health care; a demagogue never esteems scientific truth more highly than public wisdom. But this particular breed of extrapolation is pervasive in and out of the political sphere.
Think for a moment about the last time you rode in an airplane. If, like me, you still have a childlike fascination with the idea of flight, you might have watched out the window as the ground receded, captivated by the rapidly shrinking cars and houses below. What consistently intrigues me is the sheer scale. From a bird’s eye perspective, it’s obvious that far more people inhabit a single city than I will ever encounter. Yet I feel competent to make any number of assertions about those people below, drawing on some combination of demography, statistics and extrapolation from the limited sample of my own experience. For example, in contrast to my friendly congressman, I believe most people want health insurance. I also believe that very few people are interested in committing murder, and that almost everyone prefers chocolate over vanilla. Additionally, most cops spend their days investigating homicides in Miami, and all telemarketers are soulless automata who relish interrupting my dinner.
Even more specific statements may rely on the same method of extrapolation. When I say I believe that Mitt Romney will secure the next Republican presidential nomination, I am drawing on an impressionistic smattering of secondhand sources (journalists, political commentators and the like) — more divination than investigation. It’s as though I believe that among all the millions of denizens of that suburban landscape below my window, conversation with five individuals is sufficient to comprehend the beliefs of all the others.
Some of these assertions would stand up to scientific scrutiny, others would fail; but chances are that I’ll never be motivated to test most of them. Davis certainly hasn’t tested his. Instead he and I will continue to rely on the accuracy of suppositions that have more to do with the company we keep than the world we share.
While empathy may be a virtue even in government, few would argue that policy decisions are best made on the basis of personal experience. As much as I respect Davis’ small-town upbringing in rural Tennessee, where he learned “the importance of hard work, helping your neighbors and being trustworthy,” I’d prefer he park his F-150 far away from the doors of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
The subjectivist’s approach to policy analysis has its proper place. There’s more to politics than math, fuzzy or not. But sometimes I would rather be a statistic than a case study.
Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College.