Ebola And Everything That is Wrong About Our Political System

I had decided not to write a blog about the Ebola situation because I'm not a public health expert and I really didn't think I had anything to add. 

That resolve lasted until I saw tweets about a New Hampshire Senate debate between former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown (R) (Brown moved to New Hampshire to run for Senate), and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D). 

The following passage from Politico summarizes the irresponsibility that drives many of our politicians come campaign season.

"On Ebola, Blitzer repeatedly pushed Shaheen on whether she supports a travel ban from West Africa. She did not say yes or no but repeated that she defers to experts, who think it could make us worse off.

“My opponent and I aren’t infectious disease experts, so we really need to rely on the experts,” she said.

Brown said he doesn’t need to be an expert to call for travel bans.

“She calls it fearmongering; I call it rational fear,” he said.

Something is deeply wrong with both Brown's disingenuous attempt to take advantage of the Ebola outbreak, and moderator Wolf Blitzer (of CNN)'s choice of questions and follow up questions. Brown should have been the one facing hard follow up questions. 

Questions along the lines of Senator, how can you advocate a travel ban in light of the opposition from former Senator Bill Frist, a conservative Republican, but also a transplant surgeon, and former Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), who is also a doctor?

Instead, Shaheen inexplicably faced the difficult follow up questions for offering the proper response—TRUST the EXPERTS. Blitzer is a good journalist, but in this case, he fell pray to the temptation to try to pin down a politician who seems to be refusing to answer a simple question. 

He, and many other journalists covering campaigns have gotten caught up in the back and forth between candidates over Ebola rather than stepping back and asking whether the issue has any place in the campaign at all? 

My view is that it does not. Any attempt to make Ebola an issue on either side is an attempt to fear monger and a disservice to the American public. None of the Congressional candidates calling for travel bans, quarantines, etc. have any sort of expertise regarding infectious diseases. They're also openly ignoring the fact that the flu poses far greater risk to most Americans than Ebola (and I had my pick of hundreds of links to support this claim). 

I'll admit that a travel ban sounded reasonable to me—right up until the moment that I read that the experts believed that a ban would be ineffective, and might actually worsen the situation. 

Additionally, even though I agree with some of the critiques of the CDC's early handling of the situation (especially letting a Dallas nurse exhibiting possible symptoms of Ebola fly to Cleveland) I think we'd all be wise to take a step back and consider the following question: is it so surprising that public health officials dealing with their first Ebola case made some errors? 

Frankly, the real test is not whether they avoided making mistakes when treating the first case, but rather whether they learned from those mistakes and improved their handling of subsequent cases. 

Sadly, instead of statesmen, many of our public officials do and say anything that is politically expedient and they see a chance to capitalize in the waning weeks of the campaign. Ebola presents a nice simple, seemingly easy to understand issue. 

This situation also raises another major problem in politics today— the willingness of a segment of the political spectrum to ignore expertise and to willingly ignore facts. I got into several twitter debates last weekend with people over voter ID laws. My contention was simple— one is entitled to his or her own opinions. But he/she is not entitled to his/her own facts. 

We see this phenomenon most clearly in the Republican attitude towards climate change, but it is manifesting itself again in the Ebola situation. Conservative scorn for intellectuals and experts is not a new thing (the great historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about the topic nearly 5 decades ago).  Nor is it limited to issues relating to science.

Just two days ago The New York Times ran a piece on how Republican economic proposals  underwhelmed economists, even conservative Republican economists. Indeed, both the Times piece, which quoted several prominent Republican economic advisers, and the Ebola situation point to perhaps the most alarming element of today's strain of anti-intellectualism on the right— the unwillingness to listen to even conservative experts when their advice is not politically expedient, and does not match the narrative crafted by the conservative messaging machine. 

We see this phenomenon on issue after issue covering the entire spectrum of political topics. The result is often skewed perceptions among segments of the electorate and poor public policy. In several instances, Republicans have limited their own ability to govern because their rhetoric misleads voters to think that something is possible when it is not (for example, repeal of the Affordable Care Act). 

Refreshingly, many younger conservatives buck this trend, especially with regard to climate change. 

None of this is to say that experts are infallible or that they should we not challenge them. They make mistakes like all other human beings. We should ask them hard questions, regardless of the topic. Nonetheless, if we have no experts and no referees in the political process, and everyone is entitled to their own facts, the result is a destructive political process, a non-functional government, and an ill-informed public. 

My contention is that Republicans can do better without compromising their principles. For example, the economic experts cited in the Times article recommended dramatically increased spending on infrastructure. This proposal does not mesh well with Republican calls to slash government spending. And yet, there is no reason that infrastructure spending cannot be significantly increased within the context of reduced overall spending. 

Such a proposal simply requires greater spending cuts elsewhere. Indeed, it requires smarter spending cuts and would force Congress to demonstrate some courage. Congressmen would have to target programs for extinction rather than advocating across the board cuts, which are senseless, because they cut the good along with the bad. 

The same paradigm holds true regarding climate change. Republicans oppose a carbon tax for economic and philosophical reasons. But doing so does not require ignoring the obvious and telling scientific experts that they are wrong. Why not acknowledge climate change, and develop alternative, conservative proposals for combating it? (I can dream up any number of potential proposals that might fall into this category). 

While I've picked on Republicans in this post, Democrats do plenty of fear mongering and ignore experts when it suits their political needs as well (especially with regard to entitlement programs). 

There is a role for the press and the public in this process as well. The press has to hold politicians' feet to the fire. Blitzer should have followed up with Brown by asking why a travel ban related to rational fear when even conservative former office holders with medical expertise disagreed. He should have challenged Brown with the facts. Brown's campaign might have howled and charged liberal media bias. But the press ought to consistently practice this tactic with candidates and officeholders from both parties. 

As for the public, the first step is understanding that the media is a business. CNN airs hyperbolic coverage of every major "crisis" from plane crashes to Ebola because it helps drive ratings. If they minimized fears about Ebola, people would have less incentive to tune in.

Similarly, talk show hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, cannot be people's sole news source. Their job is to entertain and to provide content that their audience wants to hear. Doing so produces higher ratings and increased revenue. 

As such the public must recognize that these programs can be worth watching/listening, and indeed, have an important role in society. Nonetheless, these sorts of opinion programs cannot be a substitute for hard news coverage (and we ought to question whether the news coverage on FOX News and MSNBC qualifies).