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Fear, uncertainty in D.C. may be to blame for gridlock

jbrehm2, October 14, 2013 | View original publication

Fear, uncertainty in D.C. may be to blame for gridlock

Uncertainty and fear over President Obama's health care law may be contributing to the Washington deadlock, says a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher who specializes in political psychology.

            Ingrid Haas, a social psychologist with an appointment to in UNL's political science department, has investigated how emotion affects political tolerance. Her latest study, published online in June by the journal Political Psychology, found that if people feel uncertain and threatened, they tend to become more entrenched in their positions.

            "If you're uncertain and afraid, that's going to make you especially closed-minded and aggressive toward people you don't agree with," she said. "If that's how people are feeling, they might be less supportive of any sort of compromise between Congress and the president."

            Parts of the federal government shut Oct. 1, as Congressional opponents blocked passage of a budget resolution in an effort to win concessions on the Affordable Care Act. The impasse is headed toward a showdown over raising the debt ceiling, which President Obama has said is needed to avoid default on the federal debt.

            Uncertainty clearly has been a significant factor in the debate so far over the health care law. Recent polls indicate that Americans remain confused exactly how the 2010 law will affect them. Even though most Americans support many of the individual provisions, several recent polls indicate that half of respondents oppose the law.

            However, more people say they oppose the bill when it is called "Obamacare" instead of its formal name, the Affordable Care Act. And, in fact, some polls indicate that many people wrongly believe that the measure would create a government-run health insurance program, establish "death panels" to decide when people no longer would receive health care, provide health coverage to undocumented immigrants, or cut Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly. The measure does none of those things.

            Haas said her research indicates that uncertainty, by itself, doesn't cause political intolerance. It can lead to an open-minded, exploratory stance in which people are willing to consider new information and find compromise on political issues.

            But when they both threatened and uncertain, they may be less willing to negotiate.

            "Those people who are especially uncertain and afraid about what Obamacare is going to do might be the ones saying, 'Yes, it’s OK if the Republicans block whatever compromise Congress and the president are trying to work on,'" she said.

            "I also think that even some Democrats are uncertain about the health care law — but the fact that they think it's going to be good means that uncertainty will motivate them in a different direction," she said. "Democrats' uncertainty is less likely to lead to opposition to Obamacare and more likely to lead them to seek out more detailed information or explore the new health care exchange websites."

            However, Haas cautioned that people in Congress might be capitalizing on public uncertainty and fear to achieve other goals.

            "I think it is about more than just Obamacare," she said. "Republicans in Congress are opposed to Obamacare — but it did get through Congress (in 2010). Partially, they're just worried that if this stands, what else are the Democrats going to be able to do?"

            The debate's recent shift away from the health care law to the debt ceiling and other budget provisions supports that perspective, she added.

            "My guess is that they're partially motivated by public opinion, but I think they're partially driving public opinion, too. It's a little bit of both."

            She said that’s also true of some interest groups, like the Tea Party. 

            "Their perception is that Obamacare is a big government takeover of health care. They're concerned about government stepping into other policy areas, like gun control. That contributes to the threatened feeling that some people have," Haas said.

            Although the situation is complicated by more than five years of conflict over the federal budget — the last time Congress passed a full budget bill was in 2008 — Haas said continuing public education efforts, especially about the law's potential cost, could ease some of the conflict. Though not everyone will pay attention to facts and figures, re-framing the discussion and setting a different tone could help.

            "(The health care law) is complicated, so the uncertainty is going to be there," she said. "But removing the threat aspect of it would be useful, by trying to reassure people that it’s not going to have all these negative outcomes."

            Haas' study is at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pops.12035/abstract.