Might Versus Right
Unsurprisingly for my demographics (college educated, big city, etc.), nearly all of my friends fall squarely in the mainstream progressive segment of the political spectrum. A few are farther to the left. Only a couple lean right toward the reactionary & retrograde.
One friend in particular though is a tireless advocate of one of the great sins of modern discourse: A “both sides do it” faux objectivity whereby on any issue there are always two opposing and equally valid perspectives, and compromise is always possible. To their credit, they ceaselessly believe that the resolution to any conflict is only a matter of being nicer and making more concessions. It somehow never goes noticed that these necessarily, by nature of progress versus status quo, always skew the discussion rightward.
Most recently, prompted by a column, they cited Lincoln’s Temperance Address to argue the left should work even harder to reach out to the right. As Lincoln says: “When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted.”
An immediate rejoinder of course is that this address came a full 19 years before the Civil War. It was about alcohol. The Lincoln that ended the enslavement of 4 million people is the Lincoln that sent Sherman to burn the South and Grant to grind it into dust. Lincoln became our greatest president by finally, after long and costly efforts to the contrary, accepting that you cannot compromise with white supremacy. There exist viewpoints that cannot be reconciled, principles on which one should not trade.
In the here & now, at first glance less weighty, consider healthcare reform. Disregard for a moment the many substantive questions about practical solutions, the role of government, and so on. Just contemplate process.
For all the warts attendant to major legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was in many ways an exemplar of legislative process. Set aside the background of decades of discussion, proposals, and previous attempts at healthcare reform. Once put forward as a key feature of the Democratic agenda, a full year was spent in seemingly ubiquitous debate: Presidential speeches, dozens of hearings across both houses of Congress with numerous expert witnesses, and endless discussion throughout all media. Many proposals and revisions were published and analyzed at length by government and private groups.
Notably, that open process and conciliatory approach had real costs. Over 160 Republican amendments were incorporated, on top of a series of significant concessions made to entice Republican votes that ultimately never came. If such concessions were not made, e.g., limiting consumer subsidies as part of a balancing act to make the bill deficit neutral (it turned out to reduce the deficit), then the final outcome would have been both more effective at its goals and most likely vastly more popular.
Still setting aside all the substantive effects, development of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to roll back the ACA is now proceeding in the completely opposite fashion. After 7 years of promising alternative solutions, Republicans were caught flat footed by their unexpected takeover of the White House and forced to reveal they had no alternative ready. Regardless, despite years of false complaints about development of the ACA, they’re responding by rushing forward as fast as possible without hearings, without analysis, without draft text even being made available to members of Congress, let alone the public. Stabbing hypocrisy deep in the heart, the failed first version was literally developed in a secret locked backroom.
Keep in mind that if enacted the AHCA would be among the most momentous pieces of legislation in decades. Every single person in the country and one sixth of the economy would be directly affected, with incalculable further ramifications. And remember that all of this is purely in service to a terrible immorality and tax cuts for the very richest.
The Will To Power
The AHCA process says very clearly: There is to be no discussion, no opposing viewpoints. It is astoundingly reckless and radically undemocratic. Regardless of your policy preferences, there is nothing “conservative” about rashly, thoughtlessly enacting sweeping changes to the entire country in a headlong rush with no analysis, no debate. No matter your take on healthcare policy — many issues of which are indeed deep and subjective — not only is this an unfathomable way to run a country, it’s unimaginable that anyone could even see it as acceptable, let alone likely to yield sound policy.
We start cycling back then to my initial point. What is really going on here?
Cutting through all the politics and policies, the AHCA process is a manifestation of a very old, very basic concept: Might makes right.
Through gerrymandered districts in the House of Representatives and the fundamental bias of the Senate and Electoral College, through a thick slathering of voter suppression and multiple unprecedented interventions foreign and domestic, the Republican Party has seized government. Now they’re making the most of it toward their omnipresent goal. No debate, no reaching out for input, no consideration of the human suffering entailed or the promises broken. Just tax cuts for the wealthiest and most privileged.
Again, agreement on the policy goals and tradeoffs isn’t necessary to see that there’s a problem. If lawmakers need to eliminate debate, forestall analysis, and outright lie about the literal text of their bills — not stretch or interpret, but just baldly assert falsities — then that is not normal or healthy.
Pervasive, obvious lying works toward many ends. But fundamentally it is again an expression that might makes right. I am the President, so whatever I say must be true. I am the Speaker, so whatever I say must hold. If I make you say there are five lights when it is clear for all to see that there are four, then I have imposed my will, my chosen false reality, upon you. From there I can do anything I want.
Reasonable people can have and should discuss different ideas about the best way to address the shortcomings and costs of American healthcare. But the opaque, irresponsible, arrogant process currently being executed by the Republican party to enact devastating change upon it is different and ugly. Worse: Success will make it only a foreshadowing of more to come.
This latest evolution of the decades old healthcare debate highlights the fragile point to which the country has arrived. From competing technical policies, to questions of collective obligations to our neighbors, to being very close now to debating, and many people rejecting, bedrock principles of the United States: Might does not make right. All people are created equal. We are all endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.
There are not literal armies marching through the streets. But harbor no delusion: The stakes have always been as high as they get for many people. In this era they’re going to be raised for many more. And once you truly get down to such fundamental questions, there aren’t layers left for compromise. That can mean many things for everyday personal life over the foreseeable future. But beyond that in the longer and larger view, historically, challenges to and for these principles have all too frequently ultimately only been made and resolved, one way or the other, with violence or threat thereof.