Two popular political delusions, or, the art of the possible

So it’s politics time again. This week, arguments at the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, the law that according to (most of) its proponents will solve the country’s health-care problems and according to its detractors represents socialism or tyranny or something like that.

The Tea Party held a rally, with awesome signs. The Tea Party is essentially a rebranding of the more popular parts of “movement conservatism,” which is a political coalition that arose during the Cold War, got Barry Goldwater nominated to the presidency and got Reagan elected. There are many shocking and despicable aspects of movement conservatism, but one of the most shocking is its answer to the liberal’s question, “What do we owe each other?”

Liberals ask this question in a morally serious tone. They point out, correctly, that if you’re doing well, it’s not solely the result of your own efforts; success in our system is due to many factors, including your family’s wealth and education, your genes, the infrastructure (physical, moral, legal) created by previous generations, the efforts of other people who help you along the way (teachers, for example), and a huge helping of luck. There is no such thing as the self-made man. If you’re doing well, you’re doing well because of the contributions of others. Liberals conceptualize this in terms of debts owed to society, and they use this concept to explain why you ought to pay taxes, why we ought to provide a social safety net, health care, decent schools, etc.

Movement conservatives, who tend to be whiter, older, more likely to be male, and wealthier than the median citizen, want to deny that we owe each other anything. They downplay all the non-me factors in success. They believe the self-made man is the essence of the American dream, and they don’t understand what work the word “dream” is doing in that phrase. They have fantasies that they are autonomous, that they deserve all they have and more, and they have trouble distinguishing these fantasies from reality.

Solicitor General Donald Verilli, defending the ACA: No. It’s because you’re going — in the health care market, you’re going into the market without the ability to pay for what you get, getting the health care service anyway as a result of the social norms that allow — that — to which we’ve obligated ourselves so that people get health care.

Justice Antonin Scalia: Well, don’t obligate yourself to that. Why — you know?

While I agree with liberals that there’s something right in this language of obligation, I also worry that it invites the Tea Party’s delusional response. We owe, or we don’t owe. If we owe, we have to give up what we have, and that’s a fearful thing for people who feel insecure about their own status. Better to deny that we owe.

Instead, what if we conceptualized politics as a question of deciding collectively what kind of society we want to live in? Asking this question takes the pressure off the concept of social debt and emphasizes instead the powers of choice and imagination. It also helps us see a second delusion, a delusion that most liberals (as neoliberals) are at least as prone to as are conservatives. This is the delusion of inevitability.

The ACA is a result of this second delusion. I’m not talking about the passage of the particular legislation itself; it is probably not a delusion that the ACA was in fact just about the best health-care reform that could have been passed when it was passed. But the ACA’s basic framework, as we all know, didn’t start out as Obamacare — it was Romneycare before that, and really began its life as a conservative alternative to Clinton’s health-care proposals, which were themselves far less progressive than existing single-payer schemes in most industrialized countries. Obamacare is a bizarre kind of health-care reform that requires people to buy private insurance from some number of competing providers. It participates in the rhetoric of markets, which are supposed to make everything better, even though the best economists say health care is different from widgets and markets often make it worse.

Liberalism’s neoliberal wing has accepted the delusion that markets are natural and inevitable. Under Clinton, we saw NAFTA and welfare reform offered as end-of-history inevitabilities. It was unthinkable that markets might be removed from the health-care system; if something is as important as health care is, we couldn’t afford to leave it to anything other than markets. During the financial crisis, it was similarly unthinkable to do anything besides allowing the financial markets to shape the government’s response.

Just as we recognize that no one is successful solely because of their own merit, we can recognize that the political process can be a process of deciding what kind of society we will live in. It is not inevitable that insurance companies determine the provision of health care; we can make a political decision that they don’t get to decide anything at all about who gets which treatments. We can look at things that the ideology of the market tells us are impossible: full employment, free schools that are also good, decent housing for everyone, an end to poverty. And we can decide that we will do the work of shaping society to make these things possible. Just as no one is successful on her own, no one lives in misery without all of us allowing it to happen.

I wonder whether reframing things this way could deemphasize the insane conservative emphasis on mine, mine, mine. And whether it could shake up the disappointed liberals who have spent the last thirty years resigning themselves to an unjust, unequal world that only gets shittier. Let’s say to the Tea Partiers and the technocrats: It could be way better than this, if we all made that choice together.

8 responses to “Two popular political delusions, or, the art of the possible”

  1. Scrooge McDuck says:

    Since you’re asking, I’d like to live in a world where I have a ton of money and can buy off the media and politicians to fool the public into thinking that I’m a hero who shouldn’t be constrained by laws other than those of the marketplace because they are the only truth (a truth, of course, that I can manipulate when needs be); a world in which everyone (or near enough) is convinced that he (or she, why not?) is the sole captain of his (or her, I must grant) destiny and therefore believes that the poor and infirm deserve their fate; a world in which everyone (including most liberals) is convinced that he or she can, nay, *will* one day be among the mega-rich but until that day (which will never come) is pacified by fantasies of wealth, for which I am a prime model. Oh, snap, that *is* the world in which I live. Don’t like it? You’re just jealous and weak.

  2. Tim says:

    Sorry, everybody, I drafted that cynical comment from Scrooge McD early this morning after a fitful night of bad sleep but decided against posting it at the time. Since no one had commented well into the afternoon, I figured it might get some sort of conversation going.

    Thanks, Dave, for this. I want so much to think that the Scrooge McD’s of the world can somehow be toppled from their thrones, or at least have their power tempered in some fashion. Unless Citizens United is somehow undone (and I don’t know how that might work), I just don’t see it. The 99% spring is upon us, but I’m skeptical that Obama and the DOJ/FBI will allow it to bloom for real. It’s an election year, and Prez will be up against a middle-of-the-road conservative. They’ll be battling for the center, and so the 99%ers will be made to look like the fringe that they’re not, cutting them out from the conversation as much as possible. To become part of the conversation, some may likely turn to violence, further alienating themselves and whatever movement may be afoot.

  3. Dave says:

    Do you think we had a better chance of fixing things before Citizens United? It seems to me that corporate power, imperial power, plutocratic power, etc., were doing quite well before that decision. And Citizens United is only about campaign contributions, which (1) were already totally corrupt and (2) only matter directly for electoral politics, which is not the only ground for political action.

  4. FPS says:

    Citizen’s United feels like a canary in a mineshaft dying to lots of people on the left. I don’t know if this is rational. It feels like the door slamming shut, or any number of other metaphors for the onset of doom.

    I meant to comment more on this but it feels complete in a way. And also I had one of those days that ended with me on the subway at 7:30 reading a psych eval and laughing.

  5. FPS says:

    Oh great. Immortalized forever, me forming a plural with an apostrophe.

  6. FPS says:

    Oh great, immortalized forever, me redundantly saying “immortalized forever.”

  7. Tim says:

    I agree with FPS. Yes, of course, before Citizens big money was in power, but now that that decision has constitutionally sanctioned unlimited political donations, there seems to me no way for any issue not in big money’s interests to get any traction at all. It is the 500-ton daisy on the grave of “true democracy” (if such a thing could ever exist) at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

    And yes, there may be other forms of political action than electoral, but it seems to me that those others are predicated on the existence of a public forum in which to express and exchange ideas. When an elected official — a president, governor, mayor, etc. — can simply call out a heavily militarized police force to shut that forum down when ideas unpalatable to his/her big money underwriters are expressed there, then those forms of political action are completely ineffectual.

  8. Tim says:

    I think we all have a love/not-so-much-love thing going with This American Life, but this week’s show is very relevant to the conversation here. The most frightening part of it for me is learning that lobbyists post-Citizens have taken to subtle but clear threats of retaliation with well-funded smear campaigns against lawmakers who don’t vote the way they want on a particular bill. They don’t have to spend a dime of the millions their clients have socked away, and they get the votes, too.