In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama in the Democratic Primary. I was excited then. In fact, I was so excited that when Candidate Obama gave the commencement address that year at my college graduation and I got the chance to walk up and shake his hand, I told him, flatly: I love you.
Oh, dear reader, I was seduced by Big Hope.
After years of living precariously without healthcare insurance, I naively believed that Obama was going to deliver on his promise of universal healthcare. I really believed that by 2009, every college student like me who couldn’t afford to see a dentist was finally going to get their cavities filled.
I was so fucking stupid.
It’s so tempting to read hope between the lines of things not said. Women do this all the time when we huddle over our phones and try to deduce affection from a random string of text message emojis. But honestly, nine times out of ten, you find out the hard way that when a guy you’re dating texts you 💕💐💕, it ultimately signifies absolutely nothing at all.
But what I didn’t know in 2008 I would eventually learn when I went to graduate school to study antipoverty policy. Despite my cynicism, I know deep in my heart that installing a universal safety net for every person living in America is all absolutely possible. We could absolutely have the best public healthcare system in the world, bar none.
But I also know now how policy actually gets made, and it’s extremely gross.
When a legislator drafts a policy that seems extremely vague, it’s because it was intentionally written to be vague. When a legislator drafts a policy that is more or less a list of sexy goals rather than a list of any concrete regulations, laws or commissioned assignments, it’s because it’s written to be an invitation for lobbyists to fill in the blanks.
America’s Bitter Pill, a history of the ACA written by Steven Brill, walks the reader through all the backroom deals where Obama’s team sat down with lobbyists and entrepreneurs to turn a mandate for universal healthcare into a baroque market of insurance options. Only after the lobbyists and moneyed interests were given first crack at determining what universal care was going to look like did any other stakeholder find a seat at the table. The book is tediously long but thoroughly edifying. It is, unto itself, a master class in how shitty policy sausage gets made from the meat of vague promises.
I look at ACA as a teachable moment. What it taught me was that vague promises made by Presidential candidates are dangerous. They seduce us into believing that someone is stepping up to solve a crisis. We convince ourselves that someone is handling the problem and that we can go back to what we were doing before, which was relieving ourselves of the burden of thinking too hard about it.
That’s what I call the easy seduction of Big Hope.
In 2019, we hope that climate change won’t wipe out all the insects we never think as the foundation of our food chain. People in cities honestly don’t give much thought to the birds or the bees. We drink coffee all day without a thought as to where it’s coming from or how sustainable it is.
The only way any of us can get through a day in America is by suppressing a lot of legitimate concern. We really, really don’t want to be that person who wallows in the negative, who points out exactly all the ways we’re contributing to climate collapse. We all just fucking hate that person.
But as things get increasingly bad, that person is increasingly right: we are the problem.
Climate collapse wasn’t caused because you didn’t upgrade your lightbulbs. Ultimately, yes, climate collapse is the consequence of policies that favor corporate interests over planetary ones.
But they could get away with it for so long because even the brightest of us would prefer not to think too hard about how policy is made. We want to like our candidates. We want to get excited about canvassing for them and putting their bumper stickers on our cars. We want to participate in the pageantry. It’s fun!
And on many levels, I get it. I fucking love Bernie Sanders’ grumpy yelling. I completely lost my shit about the bird. I know exactly what it feels like to love a candidate.
But on another level, the intellectually honest level, I know all Presidents are war criminals. The Obamas are plutocrats. Candidates are not my friends. They will never be my friends. I do not owe them my allegiance. Presidents kill people for money and can only get to sleep at night by pretending that God gives a fuck about something as absurdly vague as our national interest.
Right, because that’s the danger of vagueness. Candidates rationalize horrendous antilabor policies because they think it might “grow the economy.” Does it ever matter what that means? No, again, we hear something vaguely positive and convince ourselves that someone is doing something about economic collapse. We don’t have to think too hard about it. Problem’s being solved.
And not thinking about how these policies get made is why we end up with so many taxi drivers in New York City killing themselves. We hear the Y and don’t think about solving for X. But solving for X is why so many taxi drivers are killing themselves.
When I hear that so many of the Democratic candidates running for President are supporting AOC’s Green New Deal, I’m left in a lurch. One one hand, you want to love AOC. She’s tough as nails and her brain is a fucking broadsword. But at the same time, she’s still vulnerable and liable to make errors not because she’s ignorant but because we all are.
The Green New Deal is a bill that lists out a lot of intention. It’s aggressive in stating the facts about the crisis but lean on driving forward a plan of action.
The question I’m left asking myself about the GND is this: a lot of the Presidential hopefuls supporting AOC’s Green New Deal are incumbent Congresspeople. They are not new to policy-making, as AOC is. They are seasoned veterans of the legislative process and of the committee work that goes into making policy. They know exactly how policy is made.
So if they support this bill, what is to stop them, as incumbent legislators, from drafting now the specific policies necessary to see Green New Deal made into law? They know better than anybody that the President doesn’t make laws, Congress does. So why not make these laws now, while they’re sitting Congresspeople, instead of after they’re President?
What’s the logic here?
As legislative veterans, they know that this bill is so big on hope that it would require several Congresspeople to introduce dozens of different, smaller resolutions to even begin to translate its intentions into federal policy. But anyone in Congress could start the process of introducing those bills now. Warren or Sanders or Gillibrand could be sending their aides into seminar rooms to crank out bills that would regulate carbon emissions and kill subsidies for corporate livestock farmers.
So why don’t they?
What’s stopping them from bringing the Green New Deal into reality now?
Am I being too negative to even suggest this? Am I being a needy bitch to ask for more from our candidates? Especially the ones who are still serving in Congress for the next 20 months? Seeing the projection that our oceans are going to start boiling over any minute now, might we see some hustle?
621 days to go…xoxo.