We need an uprising of decency.
If only …
If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal. If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s. If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.
But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.
Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.
He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.
The Democrats aren’t radical, but Republicans are.
Last week’s debates clearly weakened Joe Biden and increased the odds that a more definitively progressive candidate — probably Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren — will win the nomination. And you can hear the wailing from much of the Beltway, the claims that Democrats are moving too far left.
So it’s worth parsing those claims. In what sense are the Dems moving too far left? What I’m seeing are three fairly distinct claims.
- First, that the party is endangering its electoral prospects.
- Second, that the party is being fiscally or economically irresponsible.
- Third, that Democrats are unfairly proposing to redistribute income from those who create wealth to those who don’t.
So you should know that the first claim is probably wrong, the second is definitely wrong, and the third ignores the extent to which we already do a lot of redistribution in this country — with Republican voters some of the biggest beneficiaries.
On the politics: Politicians and pundits alike tend to have a lot more contact with the wealthy than with ordinary voters, and often seem to imagine that the priorities of the 1 percent — keeping top tax rates low, cutting “entitlements” — actually resonate with the general public. But polling overwhelmingly shows the opposite: Voters want to raise taxes on the rich and expand government social programs.
In moving to the left on taxes and spending, then, Democrats are actually moving toward voters’ preferences, not away from them. Yes, Republicans will try to demonize their proposals, but they would do that in any case. Remember, they called Barack Obama, with his incrementalist policies and willingness to consider Medicare cuts, a socialist, too.
In fact, the best argument against “Medicare for All” skeptics like me, who worry how voters will react to proposals to eliminate private insurance, is that Republicans will scream about a government takeover of health care — and Fox News viewers will believe them — whatever you do.
On fiscal and economic responsibility: Nobody who endorsed the 2017 tax cut has any right to criticize Democratic proposals to spend more on things like child care. That tax cut, after all, appears likely to add around $2 trillion to federal debt — with around a third of that going to foreigners. Meanwhile, the promised surge in business investment is nowhere to be seen.
At the same time, there’s a very good case for arguing that Democratic proposals would have economic as well as humanitarian benefits.
Support for child care, for example, would free more women to enter the paid work force — where they would pay taxes that would offset some of the cost. And the children benefiting from that support would eventually become healthier, more productive adults.
In other words, while progressive Democrats are mainly arguing for greater social justice, they can also make a much better case than conservatives ever could that their proposals would help the economy and at least partly pay for themselves.
Last but not least, if your view is that the progressive agenda is morally wrong, that people shouldn’t receive more in government benefits than they pay in taxes, you should be aware how many Americans are already “takers,” “moochers,” whatever. In fact, we’re talking about a vast swath of the heartland that includes just about every state that voted for Donald Trump.
I’ve been reading a recent Rockefeller Institute report on states’ federal “balance of payments” — the difference for each state between what the federal government spends in that state and what it gets back in revenue.
The pattern is familiar: Richer states subsidize poorer states. And the reasons are clear: Rich states pay much more per person in federal taxes, while actually getting a bit less in federal spending, because Medicaid and other “means-tested” programs go disproportionately to those with low incomes. But the magnitudes are startling.
Take the case of Kentucky. In 2017, the state received $40 billion more from the federal government than it paid in taxes. That’s about one-fifth of the state’s G.D.P.; if Kentucky were a country, we’d say that it was receiving foreign aid on an almost inconceivable scale.
This aid, in turn, supports a lot of jobs. It’s fair to say that far more Kentuckians work
- in hospitals kept afloat by Medicare and Medicaid,
- in retail establishments kept going by Social Security and food stamps,
- than in all traditional occupations like mining and even agriculture combined.
So if you really believe that Americans with higher incomes shouldn’t pay for benefits provided to those with lower incomes, you should be calling on “donor” states like New Jersey and New York to cut off places like Kentucky and let their economies collapse. And if that’s what you mean, you should let Mitch McConnell’s constituents know about it.
The point is that while you can criticize particular Democratic proposals, you can only portray progressives as radical or irresponsible, especially as compared with the modern G.O.P., by ignoring or suppressing a lot of facts. I guess facts really do have a liberal bias.
If progressive political parties had pursued a bolder agenda in the face of widening inequality and deepening economic anxiety, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted. So why didn’t they?
Why were democratic political systems not responsive early enough to the grievances that autocratic populists have successfully exploited – inequality and economic anxiety, decline of perceived social status, the chasm between elites and ordinary citizens? Had political parties, particularly of the center left, pursued a bolder agenda, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted.
.. Part of the reason for this, at least in the US, is that the Democratic Party’s embrace of identity politics (highlighting inclusiveness along lines of gender, race, and sexual orientation) and other socially liberal causes came at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues of incomes and jobs. As Robert Kuttner writes in a new book, the only thing missing from Hillary Clinton’s platform during the 2016 presidential election was social class.
.. One explanation is that the Democrats (and center-left parties in Western Europe) became too cozy with big finance and large corporations. Kuttner describes how Democratic Party leaders made an explicit decision to reach out to the financial sector following President Ronald Reagan’s electoral victories in the 1980s. Big banks became particularly influential not just through their financial clout, but also through their control of key policymaking positions in Democratic administrations. The economic policies of the 1990s might have taken a different path if Bill Clinton had listened more to his labor secretary, Robert Reich, an academic and progressive policy advocate, and less to his Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive.
.. Until the late 1960s, the poor generally voted for parties of the left, while the wealthy voted for the right. Since then, left-wing parties have been increasingly captured by the well-educated elite, whom Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left,” to distinguish them from the “Merchant” class whose members still vote for right-wing parties. Piketty argues that this bifurcation of the elite has insulated the political system from redistributive demands.
The Brahmin Left is not friendly to redistribution, because it believes in meritocracy – a world in which effort gets rewarded and low incomes are more likely to be the result of insufficient effort than poor luck.
.. Ideas about how the world works have played a role among the non-elite as well, by dampening the demand for redistribution. Contrary to the implications of the Meltzer-Richard framework, ordinary American voters do not seem to be very interested in raising top marginal tax rates or in greater social transfers.
What explains this apparent paradox is these voters’ very low levels of trust in government’s ability to address inequality. One team of economists has found that respondents “primed” by references to lobbyists or the Wall Street bailout display significantly lower levels of support for anti-poverty policies.
.. Trust in government has generally been declining in the US since the 1960s
.. But a progressive left that is able to stand up to nativist politics will have to deliver a good story, in addition to good policies.
Conservatives once warned that Obamacare would produce the Democratic Waterloo. Their inability to accept the principle of universal coverage has, instead, led to their own defeat.
.. At precisely the moment we were urging the GOP to march in one direction, the great mass of conservatives and Republicans had turned on the double in the other, toward an ever more wild and even paranoid extremism. Those were the days of Glenn Beck’s 5 o’clock Fox News conspiracy rants, of Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” of Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers, of Tea Party rallies at which men openly brandished assault rifles.
.. AEI would provide a home for the emerging “reform conservative” tendency. Its president, Arthur Brooks, would speak eloquently of the need for conservatives to show concern for the poor and the hard-pressed working class.
.. The mood then was that supporters and opponents of the Obama administration were engaged in a furious battle over whether the United States would remain a capitalist economy at all... it was precisely because I appreciated its unwelcomeness where I worked that I had launched an independent blog in the first place... I fruitlessly argued through 2009 and 2010 that Republicans should do business with President Obama on health-care reform... It seemed to me that Obama’s adoption of ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s—and then enacted into state law in Massachusetts by Governor Mitt Romney—offered the best near-term hope to control the federal health-care spending that would otherwise devour the defense budget and force taxes upward... I suggested that universal coverage was a worthy goal, and one that would hugely relieve the anxieties of working-class and middle-class Americans who had suffered so much in the Great Recession... They had the votes this time to pass something. They surely would do so—and so the practical question facing Republicans was whether it would not be better to negotiate to shape that “something” in ways that would be less expensive, less regulatory, and less redistributive... Increasingly isolated and frustrated, I watched with dismay as people I’d known for years and decades incited each other to jump together over the same cliff.
.. There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or—more exactly—with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters—but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say—but what is equally true—is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed—if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office—Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.
.. Over the next seven years, Republicans would vote again and again to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Total and permanent opposition to the law would become the absolute touchstone of Republican loyalty. Even Donald Trump, who dissented from so much of the old orthodoxy, retained this piece of the doxology.
.. Some of the conservatives who voted “no” to the House leadership’s version of repeal may yet imagine that they will have some other opportunity to void the law. They are again deluding themselves.
.. Too many people benefit from the law—and the Republican alternatives thus far offer too little to compensate for the loss of those benefits.
.. America committed itself for the first time to the principle of universal (or near universal) health-care coverage. That principle has had seven years to work its way into American life and into the public sense of right and wrong. It’s not yet unanimously accepted. But it’s accepted by enough voters—and especially by enough Republican voters—to render impossible the seven-year Republican vision of removing that coverage from those who have gained it under the Affordable Care Act.
.. Paul Ryan still upholds the right of Americans to “choose” to go uninsured if they cannot afford to pay the cost of their insurance on their own. His country no longer agrees.
.. Health care may not be a human right, but the lack of universal health coverage in a wealthy democracy is a severe, unjustifiable, and unnecessary human wrong.
.. As Americans lift this worry from their fellow citizens, they’ll discover that they have addressed some other important problems too. They’ll find that they have removed one of the most important barriers to entrepreneurship, because people with bright ideas will fear less to quit the jobs through which they get their health care.
.. They’ll find they have improved the troubled lives of the white working class succumbing at earlier ages from preventable deaths of despair.
.. What I would urge is that those conservatives and Republicans who were wrong about the evolution of this debate please consider why they were wrong: Consider the destructive effect of ideological conformity, of ignorance of the experience of comparable countries, and of a conservative political culture that incentivizes
- radicalism, and
- anger over
- moderation, and