When Republicans started saying the health insurance reform bill included a plan to kill senior citizens, it was such an insane, unhinged claim I was sure no one would take it seriously.
Then I spoke with a family member who is taking seriously. Being of a naturally inquisitive bent, I asked, “Why exactly would you believe something as supremely daft as that?”
The response went something like, “I got an email from a friend who got an email from a friend who heard from someone who had gotten an email and sent the information to me.”
There are three relevant issues here.
The first is that my relative – who is retired – is not being extraordinarily credulous but is choosing to trust the information they are getting from friends of friends. My relative is someone I would call a low-information voter; they don’t tend to delve into the issues and they tend to believe you can trust politicians to tell the truth (it’s not coincidental that this relative would never have considered or believed that the Bush administration was lying about everything in the run up to the invasion of Iraq). This relative – while not stupid – is not really savvy enough to know how to research the issue online and who tends to trust the information of persons deemed “more knowledgeable.” IOW, “My friend Sam keeps up on these things and Sam believes it, so it must be true.” If what Sam says corresponds to what is being said by a politician with whom my relative identifies, then my relative believes that politician. In this case, my relative identifies with Republicans because they espouse values my relative believes are laudable. As a result, when both “Sam” and Orrin Hatch claim that the health care bill includes a “kill Granny” clause, my relative believes it. Since my relative is an honest person, my relative is projecting their own honesty onto both Sam and Orrin Hatch.
The second issue is – bizarre when you think my relative trusts politicians – a deep distrust of the government. 40+ years of government bashing by conservatives have convinced my relative that the government cannot be trusted – it’s not just with actual functional things like running programs, but a deep-seated terror of anonymous government bureaucrats who are believed to hold vast amounts of unaccountable power. My relative remembers the “old days” when you could pollute and litter with alacrity. As odd as it sounds, my relative blames government bureaucrats for interfering with their right to throw trash out the car window as they drive down the highway (never mind that the family not bureaucrats has stopped such activities). In the same way, my relative believes that government bureaucrats not social opprobrium are responsible for making racial and ethnic jokes unacceptable. If it sounds eccentric, it is but it’s not unreasonable after hearing for 40 years how government bureaucrats are the enemies of freedom. So when a politician like Orrin Hatch or Jason Chaffetz (or yes, you, Jim Matheson) comes along and bashes government, it meshes with my relatives already held beliefs and creates a sense of deeper connection and identity. As weird as it sounds, my relative will vote against their own interests on the basis of a shared conservative identity.
Third is a profound reluctance to talk about and/or consider end of life issues arising from a profound inchoate almost disabling fear of death. I have a dear friend who is in her late 80s who commented to me a few years ago, “I recognize that I’m in the early stages of death and dying and I’m working to reconcile myself that I will die sooner rather than later.” Such grace concerning death is often absent in American culture; in fact, it’s strikingly rare to hear Americans acknowledge our own mortality. This profound denial of death makes it easy to see planning and managing end of life issues as wrong, as if a person is welcoming death in a morbid and unhealthy way. (I suspect there’s also some hidden class biases at work here – namely a middle class distrust of the dissolute ways of the wealthy in which wills and legal fights about inheritances are evidence of an unwillingness to work for and earn one’s own way in the world.) So when the bill included a proviso to pay for end of life counseling, it was disturbingly easy for my relative to see such counseling as government encouraging people to die rather than empowering us to manage our final exits from this mortal coil.
The “deather” lie that the reform bills will lead directly to euthanasia and government bureaucrats deciding how and when people die resonates with my family member for precisely the reason that my relative is unable to discuss or even consider their own death.
So when my relative hears Republican politicians declaring that health insurance reform will lead to the government killing old people, they believe it because, of course, conservative politicians wouldn’t lie about something like that since we all know government bureaucrats are the enemy. I suspect my relative is not alone after decades of rabid anti-government rhetoric by conservatives. That the “deather” lie has gained currency among so many senior citizens (who are also apparently incapable of realizing that Medicare is single-payer government run program) makes sense to me after talking with my relative. I’m not saying it’s a sensible outcome, but I understand how and why so many senior citizens have accepted the absurd “kill Granny” lie that Republicans have spread.