Filed under: Liberalism
This is going to be an impressionistic post, but here’s the sense I’m getting from reading a lot of young center-left bloggers’ extremely angry reaction to the reluctance of House Democrats to pass the Senate’s health reform bill.
Basically, if you’re under the age of 40 or so, pretty much your entire political life has seen Republicans in control of at least two out of three of the elected bodies of government. More important, there’s been a constant and powerful anima of conservatism either driving the direction of political life, or sort of roosting over it menacingly, threatening to return at the first stirring of progressive activism.
So if you’ve grown up liberal in this period, you’ve gotten used to the idea that you have to conceal or water down your ambitions in order to get anything through. You’ve gotten used to watering down your expectations by choosing a Southern centrist like Bill Clinton rather than a flaming California liberal like Jerry Brown who could never win; and then you’ve gotten used to Clinton himself triangulating his modest aspirations away in the face of Republican headwinds. And you’ve gotten used to backing your half-traduced liberal candidates to the hilt, acknowledging that they’re doing the best they can to get something worthwhile accomplished. You’ve gotten used to never saying things like “cut defense spending” because of fear of the conservative madness that could descend upon your centrist candidate, and that might force him to disown the liberal wing of the party. You’ve gotten used to endless Sister Souljah moments. (Or, more important, Lani Guinier/Van Jones moments, where your candidate is forced to sever ties to a smart, morally upstanding, politically solid progressive with excellent policy ideas because they once wrote something that stupid, provincial, ignorant people think is Communist, or that white people think favors black or Hispanic people. You’ve also gotten used to the idea that you can never, ever call people stupid, ignorant, or provincial, certainly not if they’re white.)
You’ve gotten used to the expectation that any good progressive policy initiative will be bastardized and bargained down until it’s only half as good as it might have been, and that this remainder will then be laced with a cocktail of industry giveaways and sweetmeats for particular “centrist” Democrats in order to have any hope of passing. You’ve gotten used to the idea that you will then need to express full-throated support for the resulting mess of a bill because, after all, it’s better than nothing, and this is the way things work in our democratic system. You’ve gotten used to the idea that the solutions that emerge from the process will be not first-best or even second-best but third-best solutions that are then made even worse in committee.
But you’ve learned to take all this like a grownup. Political reality is what it is. You’re in this to get things done, not to preen. You’re not a Nader voter, prizing your moral purity above your actual accomplishments. You don’t have the luxury of declaring “a pox on both your houses” to Democrats and Republicans alike. You want things to get better, you have one life, you live in the real world. And so you vote Democratic. You put your shoulder into it and try to push that rock a little further up the hill.
And then you get the 2008 election. A once-in-60-years majority in House and Senate, plus the presidency. This is as much as the Democrats can ever hope to have in your lifetime. This legislative moment will not come again. These chances don’t come around twice. There are pressing problems to be solved: a vicious recession, global warming, the combustiflating health-care system that will bankrupt the government in 25 years. This is the moment to take these challenges on.
Then you watch Senate Democrats f*** up the health reform bill to within an inch of its life, over the course of 9 months, because they’re too cowardly to get out there and pass something decent, too stupid to realize that their Republican opponents are trying to kill the bill and kill the Democratic majority, too selfish and puerile to give up the opportunity for rent-seeking behavior of fiddling with this and that little piece of crap provision so they can have some kind of goody for their own local voters. And yet still, you back the bill. It’s still got the most important, powerful reforms in it — guaranteed issue and community rating, the exchanges, the stuff that will help people. It’s still got some cost-control measures — $500 billion in Medicare savings and the employer insurance tax aren’t too bad. It’s reasonably fiscally responsible. You back it the way you’ve backed everything Democrats have tried to do for the past 30 years, acknowledging the crippling political realities that make it worse than it might be.
And then the Democrats lose their 60th vote in the Senate, and the Democrats in the House panic and won’t take the last available possible way forward and just sign the Senate bill.
At this point, a certain number of those reasonable, mature, grown-up younger people who’ve backed the Democrats this far are going to start reassessing their understanding of political reality. If you give up your purism in the interests of pragmatic accomplishment, and spend 10 or 20 years working towards that pragmatic accomplishment, and you get this close to that pragmatic accomplishment only to have the people who could make it a reality drop the thing and back away because they’re scared to do it…you start to think maybe those people aren’t actually going to get you any pragmatic accomplishments. Ever. You start re-evaluating your feelings about Naomi Klein. You start wondering whether you might perhaps accomplish more by pulling a black mask over your face, picking up a baseball bat, and charging into the AHIP building yelling “here’s your public option” and smashing shit up trying to nudge the Overton window a bit further left.
So that’s what I think is going on with those young liberals who are now saying they might consider staying home and not voting Democratic next fall. I don’t belong to that camp. I still think that fragmenting your party is almost always a mistake. I’ll be voting next fall. But I can see where they’re coming from.
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