A middle-aged man in a red golf shirt shuffles up to a small folding table with gold trim, in a booth adorned with a flotilla of helium balloons, where government workers at the Kentucky State Fair are hawking the virtues of Kynect, the state’s health benefit exchange established by Obamacare.
The man is impressed. “This beats Obamacare I hope,” he mutters to one of the workers.
This delightful vignette illustrates a very real political problem for the Democrats. As Krugman observes, “Democrats running in 2014 will have the extra problem that even people who are getting big benefits from the new program may not understand who to thank.” The problem is exacerbated by energetic Republican disinformation efforts. But Krugman believes that eventually, voters will “figure out that it is in fact a federal program.”
I’m not quite as optimistic. During the health care reform debate, one poll found that 39 percent of Americans wanted the government to stay out of Medicare. This is symptomatic of a broader problem: as Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler has found, many recipients of government largesse claim that they have never used a government program. Among the programs that beneficiaries deny receiving are the home mortgage interest deduction, student loans, Social Security, veterans’ benefits, unemployment benefits, and more. Conservatives, in particular, are far more likely than liberals to falsely deny that they’ve used government programs.
That makes sense, because right-wing ideology requires conservatives to denounce government programs as evil. To admit that such programs serve a useful purpose — and especially, that one has depended on such a program — would be to induce head-spinning cognitive dissonance.
It’s likely that most conservatives put the government programs they like into a different category altogether. Thus, Kynect is a nice health care program that is completely unrelated to Obamacare. Medicare is well-run health care system, and the government should keep its grubby paws off it. And on and on. This kind of denialism, actually, isn’t so surprising.
But it’s when conservative misinformation infects the mainstream that I start to get worried. Polls about Obamacare show that there is quite a bit of misinformation about the program floating around. Hopefully, implementation of the program will dispel a lot of that. But it’s not like conservatives aren’t feverishly trying to whip up fear and confusion. It’s likely that many Americans will continue to have negative associations with that monstrous, totalitarian entity known as “Obamacare” — even as they unknowingly enjoy its benefits.