The Democrats Need to Double Down on Their Ideas
Don’t just fight back. Fight for something.
As we face down the most nakedly authoritarian government in US history, strategy will become paramount. I was heartened to see so many people out in the streets at the Women’s March and hope that action spurs many previously disengaged people to become and stay politically active. Local organizing, radical bureaucracies, pressuring legislators— these are all important tools in the fight against a fascist state. Trump has shown us that he should be taken both literally and seriously; it’s imperative that we analyze not only whom we’re resisting, but how.
This week, to put it bluntly, has been horrifying, but blaming Trump entirely eliminates some key details. First, many of this week’s actions were lifted straight out of Mitt Romney’s first week playbook. Romney, and to a lesser extent Paul Ryan, put a smiling white face on debilitating cuts to our nation’s institutions, but they ran on them nonetheless. Ryan, for his part, will rubber stamp Trump’s entire agenda as long as he can take healthcare away from poor people and lower taxes. And the Democrats? I won’t call them the worst actors in this, but their utter lack of spine will only embolden Trump and his team.
The Democrats have learned nothing from the past eight years. They seem to think that if they just play nice, confirm some of Trump’s incrementally less horrifying nominees, and write enough blistering Facebook posts that they will be able to play politics with this new regime. The GOP is not a rational actor, though, and the Democrats need to stop assuming any sort of good faith. Romney was the one who normalized our current president, welcoming Trump’s support when Trump was fomenting racist backlash to President Obama. Ted Cruz was willing to default on Federal debt and throw the world into fiscal panic rather than increase the debt ceiling, which was essentially a symbolic lever in the first place. And remember, these were among the supposedly sane GOP choices.
The GOP base probably won’t come back to Earth any time soon. For years now, Fox News and the conservative media have created their own epistemology, their own set of facts, enemies of the state, and logical fallacies. Fox is now virtually indistinguishable from state-run media (it’s also equally trusted, by an average American, as NPR). Shrilly repeating that Obama never actually came for anyone’s guns but Trump has already banned people on the basis of religion will do no good because without a broad basis of consensus, feeling fills the vacuum that fact once occupied. Plenty of people felt threatened by Obama in a way they feel lifted up by Trump. (And sure, because racism, but also, yeah, racism is not the only factor here.) The Dems will lose unless they can conjure a similarly powerful feeling, and it would help if the party’s leadership didn’t seem to be encouraging #vichydemocrats to trend on Twitter. (Stop confirming Trump’s nominees, for fucks sake.) Trump is an unprecedented threat, and the Democrats will lose if they stick to politics as usual.
I don’t mean to imply that the Democratic establishment is the party of decent rubes that keeps getting played by GOP sharks. The Dems certainly have their share of wrongdoings: drone warfare, creeping surveillance powers, crony capitalism, and hawkish foreign policy to name a few. Yet, to a huge portion of this country, the Democratic Party has completely failed in distinguishing itself from a party actively engaged in evil. This isn’t just the fault of Fox News and Breitbart.
The other day, I was scrolling through replies to a viral tweet about the ACA in a semi-weekly ritual of masochism when I came across my favorite new argument about healthcare. You see, said the anonymous person with Deplorable in his Twitter handle, Obama actually didn’t care about the American people like Trump does. The proof: Obama’s ACA fined people for not having insurance.
This argument is technically true: a major component of the ACA is the individual mandate, which comes in the form of an income tax fine levied on those who don’t have health insurance. To say this is reductive would be, well, reductive. The ACA has a mandate because of adverse selection. Without the mandate, insurance companies would not be able to offer people low enough rates to entice them to purchase insurance because only sick people would buy it, driving costs up for everyone. Furthermore, sick people can now more easily afford insurance, too, because the ACA disallows insurance companies from using pre-existing conditions to determine coverage. These mechanisms act in concert. To spread out risk for insurers, the ACA mandates more people get coverage. The system’s a near tautology: more people can only afford insurance if more people get insurance.
What’s more, the ACA subsidized insurance for millions of people, ultimately saving them (and many taxpayers) money. The biggest problem of the ACA is that it was only a qualified success. Some people who hadn’t before had insurance now had to pay for insurance, and those rates, as all insurance rates do, went up. The counterfactual is that eventually those same people would have needed insurance and rates without the ACA likely would have been higher, or they would have been bankrupted when they needed care. The counterfactual is unimportant. It feels like a tax levied on being alive.
The world is incredibly complicated, and for years the Democratic Party’s consensus has been to soberly address the world’s issues with a mind on their complexity. It’s complicated and we’re making things incrementally better and oh yeah, the wealthy keep getting wealthier and keeping up keeps getting harder for you is a pretty crappy political strategy. The GOP doesn’t have better ideas, but it has much harsher absolutes, and its embrace of binary solutions and rejection of complexity have given it a political leg up.
The pursuit of complicated but flawed solutions has hurt the Democratic Party in another way, though. The Dems’ failures have given the GOP an opening to use its opposition’s language without backing it up. Here’s what I mean. Do you really believe Paul Ryan wants to give more people healthcare, but he just wants to do it with lower taxes? Then why do we let him co-opt our language? If we fight for universal healthcare, then we force the GOP’s hand. It can oppose it for market-related purposes (that could be an entire post, in and of itself), but not because it wants the same world we do. If we fight for universal healthcare, then Twitter heroes will have a much harder time claiming that we’re fining uninsured people and not getting the rest better care. If we claw for half-measures like the ACA, the GOP can say that its solutions are just a difference of mechanism rather than intent. That’s bullshit.
Trump et al will not tear down the country in baby steps. Our resistance, thus, cannot be trying to move the needle in fits and starts. We must be resolute.
Trump’s greatest political asset is that he makes subtext into text. In that light, his cabinet picks are nakedly outside of the GOP mainstream in the way they talk about their ideas, but they are quite mainstream when it comes to what their ideas actually are.
Here is an opportunity for Democrats: resist the temptation to label everything as complicated. The opposition is as nakedly evil as you can imagine, so double down on your ideas and resist. Fight for the things that matter, and fight for them in full. Fight for universal healthcare and don’t for a second entertain the idea that a ban on Muslim immigrants/refugees is okay. Fight for clean air and clean fuel and fuck the oil lobby. Fight for the whole agenda, not just what you think might be palatable and politically feasible. The GOP won’t negotiate with you anyway, so win on the strength of your ideas. Don’t give the GOP the chance to gut the nation state, to throw our country and world into disrepair, and to simply say it was trying to create the same world you were.