Obamacare, the Sequel

Republicans are hell bent on repealing the Affordable Care Act. So what does the new plan look like?

There’s a curious new ad that’s been playing on my television and computer screens. It’s in support of Congressman Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican who represents parts of Denver.

The chirpy female narrator talks about how Coffman’s plan for health care reform will fix the problems of the Affordable Care Act.

Our health care system isn’t working. Mike Coffman has a plan to fix it. More choices. Lower costs. Peace of mind for people with pre-existing conditions. Tax credits to help families buy insurance. Small businesses pooling together to drive down costs.

I don’t care which side of the ACA, aka Obamacare, you come down on. This ad is curious.

Because the plan it’s describing is Obamacare.

So you’d think this innovative plan would be promoted on the congressman’s website. But if you head over to Coffman’s issues page on health care, there’s nary a mention of the new, fabulous, sounds-just-like-Obamacare-but-completely-different-than-Obamacare plan.

The health care policy page on Mike Coffman’s website.

There is some boilerplate policy statement language.

Health care reform is essential for containing cost and expanding access. This can be accomplished without raising taxes or stripping $100’s of billions out of the Medicare system in order to start a new entitlement program.

But aside from adding a single line that health care reform should “promote price competition by allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines” there is no mention of any specific policy or plan.

As it turns out, the ad is part of nationwide push by a a conservative lobbying group, American Action Network. According to Politico, they’ve spent $1.3 million dollars to run ads in select districts, customizing them for the local market’s representative. Coffman, a Republican in a suburban district in a swing state, is considered potentially vulnerable to ouster in 2018.

This ad in support of Jeff Denham’s health care plan is identical to the ad running in support of Mike Coffman’s health care plan in Colorado. Denham is a Republican in California’s 10th Congressional District, which represents the northern San Joaquin Valley.

These political ads serve as a form of propaganda, different from the black propaganda I talked about previously, but having a similar function. While the ads nominally offer a nod to transparency (a line “paid for American Action Network” appears as text along the bottom of the screen for the last four seconds of the ad), it’s designed to make you think the ad is produced by Mike Coffman.

This is grey propaganda: where the source of the message is intentionally obscured.

But I’m not influenced by propaganda,” you say. “I’m an independent thinker.” Yes, yes. We all want to believe that about ourselves.

The reality, however, is that we are influenced, subtly or not, but these messages. Advertisers wouldn’t be spending $5 million for a 30-second spot on this weekend’s Super Bowl if they didn’t have solid research that media messages influence our perceptions and buying patterns.

Woman protest smoker, Easter Parade, 1929. From The Society Pages.

This isn’t just a modern phenomena. An Edward Bernays-crafted campaign shifted ideas about women smoking in public. Bernays is largely credited as being the father of public relations. Prior to the campaign (in the 1920s), it was considered taboo for women to smoke in public. Bernays, borrowing from suffragists, reframed cigarettes as “torches of freedom,” where women were pushing against their oppressors. Media picked up the message. The taboo vanished.

Lucky Strike ad geared to women, 1930s.

And once that happened, women could be sold cigarettes as a dieting aid.

From Bernays:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Again, I’m not one to bemoan propaganda as inherently evil. But unlike messages directly from politicians or advertisers, it takes some digging to find out who the neutral sounding “American Action Network” actually is (they self-identify as a “center-right” organization; left-leaning media describe them as “dark money” because they don’t reveal donors).

The danger is that these left- and right-leaning super-PACs can influence the political discourse, and, in fact, change how we think about issues.

As Bernays observed:

Whether in the problem of getting elected to office or in the problem of interpreting and popularizing new issues, or in the problem of making the day-to-day administration of public affairs a vital part of the community life, the use of propaganda, carefully adjusted to the mentality of the masses, is an essential adjunct of political life.

Think about the careful construction of the Coffman ad. No actual policies are mentioned. Instead, only vague “feel-good” ideas: more choice, lower costs, tax credits. Small businesses, it suggests, could pool together and have the same purchasing power as larger corporations (that’s called a health care exchange, a signature element of Obamacare). The ad also includes one specific thing people liked about the Affordable Care Act: a requirement that pre-existing conditions won’t prevent you from getting insurance.

The ad takes things directly from the ACA and reframes them as Coffman’s own ideas. All the while without actually offering a concrete plan for reform.

That’s a page directly out of Bernays’ playbook.


Looking to do your part? One way to get involved is to read the Indivisible Guide, which is written by former congressional staffers and is loaded with best practices for making Congress listen. Or follow this publication, connect with us on Twitter, and join us on Facebook.

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