WASHINGTON -- In the 1950s, the psychologist Leon Festinger became fascinated by a Chicago woman pseudonymously named Marian Keech, who convinced herself and a surprising number of others that the world was about to end in a biblical flood.
When aliens didn’t arrive in spaceships to save Keech and her followers on Dec. 21, 1954, as she predicted, it did not, at least as far as Keech’s followers were concerned, reveal her as a fraud.
But it did inspire Festinger and his colleagues, who infiltrated Keech’s group, to formulate one of modern psychology’s most important new schools of thought -- the theory of cognitive dissonance, which they detailed in the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails.
The United States Congress is not a UFO cult. But its members are all too human, and the floors of its deliberative chambers offer exceptionally fertile ground for hatching all manner of prophecies, often of the frightening variety. They aren’t usually as specific as Marian Keech. Nor are many willing to espouse such dystopian apocalyptic visions.
But when Congress debated and passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010, opponents were nearly unified in offering grim Keech-like predictions. With Obamacare now in full effect, and the economy on a decided upswing, the dour prognostications are starting to look like Keech's flying saucers. At least if you believe the data. A look at Festinger's theories, though, can explain why that won't matter, and why Americans can expect a continued drumbeat of doom, even as the prophecies fail.
Some of the soothsayings are a little hard to quantify, or perhaps might have to be graded on a scale -- warnings such as Obamacare bringing about the destruction of America or at least the beginning of tyrannical socialism.
But some of the doom foretold then and more recently is easier to evaluate. Perhaps the most common prediction was that Obamacare would be an economy-crushing “job killer.”
Some members were quite specific. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) was among a cadre of crystal-ball gazers who said in November 2009 that “an estimated 5.5 million jobs could be lost.”
Even later, with some elements of the law starting to take hold, many members insisted the nation’s jobs would be imperiled. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a freshman elected in 2010, in part to repeal Obamacare, was among the many who forecast during a 2011 repeal bid that the health law would be a fiscal grim reaper.
“It’s job-killing to the tune of hundreds of thousands of jobs a year,” Kinzinger said.
That does not appear to be what happened. In 2014, with most aspects of the law in operation and companies preparing for this year’s “employer mandate,” the nation saw its best year for employment growth since 1999, with about 3 million jobs created. The trend has accelerated in 2015.
It would seem to most casual observers that if the economy is taking flight as Obamacare takes full effect, then the health care law is not, in fact, a job-killer. Indeed, that’s how it seems to economists.
“It certainly has not had the baleful effects the critics were predicting,” said Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who supports the law, but never thought it would have much economic impact. “On balance it may be a modest plus, to the extent that it has contributed to the slowdown of growth in health care costs.”
But that's not how Capitol Hill’s gloomsday cult sees it. Indeed, try getting any of them to admit the Affordable Care Act jobs slaughter has not happened, and they sound like the punchline to the old joke where a spouse gets caught in the act cheating: “Who are you going to believe -- me, or your lying eyes?”
“What do you mean it hasn’t happened?” said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the new chairman of the House Budget Committee. “Have you talked to any businesses out there?”
“The predictions were correct in that it’s been one of the one of the slowest recoveries in history,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.). “It’s done a lot of damage.”
“It is a job-killer,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a conservative noted for being especially reasonable and clear-eyed.
“I’m reminded every day that Obamacare is a catastrophe, and a job-killer,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who became infamous for shouting “You lie!” at President Barack Obama from the House floor during the president’s health care address to Congress in 2009.
It might be tempting to accuse politicians of lying when they deny what appears to be obvious statistical data -- which is certainly a possibility.
"With politicians, you can’t be sure that what comes out of their mouths is really what’s in their head," said Elliot Aronson, one of Festinger’s former students who is regarded as the foremost expert on cognitive dissonance alive today. "When it comes to politics, we have to really look closely."
But if you give them the benefit of the doubt, Aronson said, it’s probably more accurate to say politicians simply don’t believe their lying eyes.
The way cognitive dissonance works is that when people are confronted with information that contradicts either their beliefs or actions, they feel discomfort. To feel better, they either have to modify their beliefs and actions, or find some way to discount the disconfirming information. And the more effort someone invests in a particular action or idea, the greater the lengths they will go in crafting justifications to ease their discomfort.
“That’s really the way the human mind works, even outside of Washington,” Aronson told HuffPost.
Aronson and co-author Carol Tavris looked closely at that phenomenon in their 2007 book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). Among the examples are prosecutors who insist that people cleared by DNA evidence are still guilty; scientists who insist results that agree with funders’ interests could not have been swayed, and people who like an idea from their political party, but dislike the same idea if told it came from the opposition party.
Indeed, committing to a specific ideology can make it much harder to see facts clearly, let alone acknowledge them. Aronson noted that it’s especially hard for people who spent the last five years opposing a specific policy. “These guys are so committed to the belief that Obama can’t do anything right, and that Obamacare is socialism, that it would be very, very difficult for them to examine the data objectively," he said. "I think that’s what’s wrong with politics, that’s what’s wrong with ideology, that’s what’s wrong with politics that are ideologically driven.”
It’s not just a Republican problem.
“The pattern is, of course, bipartisan,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth University political scientist who has studied health care policy and dissonance. He pointed to the Iraq war. While there was massive dissonance when no weapons of mass destruction were found in a conflict that was justified by WMD claims, Democrats who opposed President George W. Bush’s Iraq troop surge found themselves in an awkward position when the tactic worked.
“You can argue that it was a temporary tactical victory, but at the time there was a similar dynamic. Attacks on coalition forces went down dramatically during and after the troop surge,” Nyhan said. “A lot of critics of the war didn’t want to credit that policy with seemingly having a positive outcome.
“It is very threatening to admit you’re wrong, and we’re all terrible about it as human beings, so it’s not surprising that people didn’t change their minds,” Nyhan added. “It’s especially hard for politicians to change their minds or admit they might be wrong.”
In the case of the politics around Obamacare and the economy, the problem of cognitive dissonance is complicated by, well, complexity.
There are numerous aspects of the economy and health care that opponents can point to in order to maintain their position, especially through anecdotes, even if they are contradicted by broader economic data.
Nyhan noted that in order to prove Republicans wrong about Obamacare killing millions of jobs, you’d have to be able say how much better the economy should be without Obamacare than it is. The economy added 3 million jobs last year, but would it have added 4 million if the Affordable Care Act did not exist?
“One could create some line of argument that the economy would be much, much stronger without the ACA, but that really seems to be a stretch,” said Van de Water, the economist. “We have a very large economy. Even as important as the Affordable Care Act is, it’s working on a major sector of the economy, but only at the margins. Even in advance, one would have thought it wasn’t going to have a huge effect.”
While it’s difficult to say precisely what would have been, Van de Water noted several grim predictions that have not been borne out: that Medicare Advantage plans would go belly up, that medical device manufacturers would be crushed, that the health insurance industry would suffer, and that hospitals would fail.
“Not only are the broad claims about killing jobs not turning out to be correct, the narrower claims related to a large possible effect on specific industries are also turning out to be incorrect,” Van de Water said.
Yet House Republicans have held more than 50 votes to repeal or damage the law. And opponents are fighting in the Supreme Court to hamstring the legislation, with the very real possibility of undoing a law that has not wreaked the havoc they predicted.
Nyhan said he expects the issue will fade with time, starting as soon as the 2016 elections. Aronson said he also thinks the issue will fade, but slowly and only as new politicians who were not enmeshed in the fight emerge.
“One would hope that our politicians would be open-minded. One would hope that a senator from West Virginia or Arkansas, or wherever they do a lot of coal mining, would have just as objective a view of climate change as someone from Massachusetts, but that’s not going to happen,” Aronson said.
As far as how long it might take for Obamacare's elected prophets of doom to recant their predictions, Aronson offered one of his own.
“About as long as it takes for hell to freeze over, with global warming,” he said.
Jesse Rifkin and Maxwell Tani contributed reporting.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.