Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why Politicians Should Read Kuhn

The dust has (sort of) settled from the bruising and ultimately fruitless budget battle that shut down large swaths of the federal government for two weeks. I would say that the finger-pointing has begun, but in tribal American politics today it never stops, as evidenced by various snarky memes and comments in my FB feed:

As a number of folks have pointed out, all that the agreement reached by Congress has really done is kick the can down the road. The New York Times and others have run stories about the emerging political battle, largely shaping up within the Republican Party, for the "next round" of budget deadline gamesmanship.

Much of the battle - both among Republicans and between Republicans and Democrats - is focused on the Affordable Care Act, a package of health care legislation originally passed in 2010 and being phased in piece by piece. As with any complex, sweeping piece of legislation there are plenty of things within the ACA that people like and plenty of things they don't - and nobody on either side understands more than 10% of the whole.

But what intrigues me about the battle over the ACA is not the fervor with which some members of the GOP are pursuing it, or the lengths they are willing to go to try to stop it. What's interesting is that the battle is entirely negative. Unlike in the mid-1990s, when Republicans responded to the Clinton administration's efforts to reform health care (the ill-fated "Hillarycare" proposals) with alternative ideas (many of which, ironically, are in the ACA), this time around those most fervently opposed to the ACA have been absolutely and totally silent about what they think should happen.

This silence guarantees that the nay-sayers will lose.

How do we know they will lose? Not by counting votes (although that worked well in this last round) or by taking public opinion polls (although those run the wrong direction for the Tea Party). We know the anti-ACA movement will fail because you can't replace something with nothing. Just ask Thomas Kuhn.

Kuhn, of course, famously penned The Structure of Scientific Revolutions back in 1962. Among Kuhn's key insights: progress in science is not a function of new evidence and new discoveries so much as it is as political process. Outdated scientific models only get replaced by new ones when the new ideas ("paradigms" was his term) persuade enough people that they are better than the old ones.

In fact, this is a pretty good model for politics in general, especially when it comes to broad ideas about policy. It's not enough in science or politics to simply say "I don't like that". Whatever is in place right now - be it policy or theory - serves a purpose. The existing answer may serve that purpose well or poorly, but it is (by definition) better than nothing, because the system evolved it. There may be better answers, but not having an answer is not an option.

The problem that the Tea Party wing of the GOP has (undoubtedly one of many) is that they are attempting to get rid of something that, well or poorly, serves a purpose. The purpose in this case is "trying to fix the health care system in the United States". Given that there is nearly universal agreement across the political spectrum that the previous status quo in health care was badly broken and needed fixing, threatening to take away the ACA and replace it with nothing is tantamount to saying, "The way things were was fine. We don't need reform - let's just got back to the way it was." That's a non-starter of an argument.

If the Tea Party, or anybody else for that matter, wants to have a prayer of actually getting rid of the ACA they need to build a new paradigm - a better answer to the question of how the health care system should work. Until they do, stomping their foot (politically) and saying "No!" plays well to a certain political demographic (about 20% of the country, based on polling) but is guaranteed to lose the other 80%.

So my modest suggestion for moving past the gridlock over the ACA: send a copy of Kuhn's book to every GOP member of Congress. Hope they read it. And see if they can come up with a winning paradigm. Because without that, like it or not, the ACA is the dominant paradigm in town.


  1. Apparently you missed the part where selling insurance across state lines will fix everything. ;-).

  2. The ACA is the dominant paradigm (and the GOP has no alternative) for the same reason the ACA is flawed: it is already a work of compromise between Democrat and Republican models. Accordingly it represents, in a way, the broad political will of the American people. The present attempts by the GOP to negate the Act, and their alarmist arguments against it, are accordingly disingenuous. Great article as always!