Dear Progressives, Conservatives Are Eating Your Lunch

I can tell already that this is going to confuse two groups of people for two different reasons. Left leaning people are going to disagree that Conservatives are Progressives, and Right leaning people are going to take umbrage at the use of a word that’s been tarred for decades. To be clear, I’m a left leaning person that generally advocates for left leaning ideas, but lately I’ve felt a little starved for inspiration from “my side”, so I spent a few weeks looking around.

I eventually found the inspiration I was looking for, but that’s not this story. This story is about where I found it, or more important, where I didn’t.

I want to take an impossible survey by show of hands. Raise your hand if you think the federal government is doing things just great, and you can’t really think of any programs you’d improve.

Now raise your hand if you think there are problems (big and small) with our federal institutions, and you think they could be doing things massively better.

Almost all of you raised your hand at the second option. I don’t even need to check. There’s not a rational person in this country that would say there’s nothing to fix or improve about our government. It’s one of the few things that people across the political spectrum agree on (and isn’t it refreshing to find it?).

The problem is, there is only one side of the political spectrum that’s advancing this idea on a national level. There’s only one side that’s really progressing the full slate of no-apologies agenda items on behalf of its constituents: Conservatives. Huh?

The ACA is a good example to look at. It’s an incredibly divisive program that’s complex in almost every way. It’s so difficult to understand that most Americans didn’t know that it drove down uninsured rates to historic lows. Many didn’t know that it protects you from being prevented from getting insured due to pre-existing conditions. This is to say nothing of all the other implications on a macroeconomic level. Most Americans are so flustered with their health insurance plight that they don’t have the bandwidth to evaluate alternatives.

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Ok, that last sentence was false, but I had you, didn’t I? Of course Americans are looking at alternatives — they’re putting a lot of thought into how to balance the numbers around rising health care costs. They care deeply about finding a better way to protect their families from health issues. And meanwhile, the TV in the background is repeating the Conservative refrain “Repeal & replace! Repeal & Replace!” The ire becomes almost Pavlovian.

While the Right has a nifty two word slogan that neatly packages their argument, where is the competing narrative from the Left? Why aren’t Progressives calling for still better healthcare options than the ACA? The ACA isn’t the silver-bullet healthcare solution we’re looking for, and it’s clearly not God’s gift to health outcomes or cost savings. The answer is they’re too busy playing defense on what they know is a flawed system that either requires corporate welfare to enable, or is corporate welfare itself.

They know, like the rest of us, that the program is an improvement over nothing, but that it’s far, far, far from sufficient. Per capita health care costs in the US are still one of the highest on earth, and the ACA has had a mediocre effect on those costs. There’s only one narrative being broadcast into the national dialogue, and it’s coming from Conservatives: Repeal & Replace. Why aren’t Progressives creating a similar drum beat around their own ideas? Single payer health care is superior to our employer-tied private health insurance model, and demonstrably so. But once again, that’s not this story.

Everyday Americans like you and me feel the pain of dysfunctional government, but only one side is offering meaningful alternatives to the status quo, whether you like those alternatives or not. So in the absence of a Progressive message to focus on, the Conservative message gets all the press, and Progressives get stuck holding the bag.

This isn’t to say that Conservatives shouldn’t be heard, but should they be the only ones getting heard? Not unless they’re the only national narrative on offer. Progressives are so busy playing defense that they forgot how to play offense. They need to be able to look in the mirror, and look Americans straight in the eye and say, “We can do better. That was Version 1, but wait til you see what’s next.” There’s a conspicuous gap where the can-do attitude of the Obama campaign used to be, and it’s becoming more conspicuous with every passing week of a Trump presidency.

The ACA is the most obvious example in current climate, but what about others? There are ideas for upgrades to our institutions everywhere, but none of them get considered seriously because of political risk. Where is the excitement about single payer health insurance, or universal basic income, or even a negative income tax? These are legitimate, well thought out policy ideas that are getting next to no press. To listen to the news is to be constantly confronted with the thought that our leaders, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, are creatively bankrupt. Where is the upgrade mentality?

And “upgrade” is the appropriate term. We upgrade software constantly. Science upgrades its understanding of the universe with each new discovery. We upgrade our kids when we send them to school. So why can’t we have a culture of Upgrade within our government? This may go against our current throwaway culture, but when something’s broken, you don’t just throw it away, you try to fix it. There needs to be this counter-argument to the Conservative “starve the beast” strategy. We need to send the beast to the gym.

Conservatives are the only Progressives we have right now, to the detriment of our American Experiment, and to the frustration of rationalists everywhere. Conservative answers to today’s policy challenges are ham-fisted hatchet jobs of institutions our grandparents fought to create in response to authoritarianism and inequality. To fail to advance the ideas that make Progressives, well, progressive is to abdicate the spirit of ingenuity that makes this country great.

Leaders, get to work.

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