The struggle over health care will, alas, take quite a while to have a significant effect on American lives no matter how it turns out--a political liability in an age of instant gratification. It represents both an attempt to begin to bring the United States closer to other major industrialized countries (and perhaps to keep the United States an industrial country at all), and an effort to restore a critical American political tradition that has been steadily eroding since the Great Society. The outcome remains extremely uncertain--and the passage of legislation this year will be only the beginning in any event--but as I watch the debate unfold, it seems clearer and clearer that our democracy's capacity to function is being tested by this remarkable struggle.
The battle between emotion and reason has been a recurring theme of these posts for years, all the more so since we have replaced a President who proudly relied almost completely upon emotion--his "instincts"--with one who turns more instinctively towards logic and reason than any President since John F. Kennedy. Indeed, the battle between the Democrats and Republicans has become largely a battle of reason against emotion, which is why the Republicans remain the strongest in the least educated parts of the country, and rely so heavily on the most primal emotions, including greed, the desire to kill (gun rights), and the fear of sex. While I remain hopeful that reason can still hold the balance in western civilization, I also believe that its triumph can never be complete. Indeed, the greatest and most destructive wars in history, the two world wars, took place at the climax of the age of reason in the first half of the twentieth century, and the combatants, as I pointed out in Politics and War, claimed, and believed themselves, that they were fighting for rational goals. The almost complete eclipse of reason in our political discourse, however, is at least as great a cause for concern--and that is what President Obama, coolly and persistently, is trying to fight. So far it looks like an uphill struggle.
The Democrats are in effect fighting with their emotional tied behind their back, because forty years of unremitting Republican propaganda have effectively discredited the emotional appeals upon which they used to rely. The experience of the last saeculum (1868-1945) was very different. Beginning in 1896 and continuing through the First World War, the distribution of wealth was a major issue of American politics, and reformers, while only intermittently successful, did not feel on the defensive. They went into an eight-year eclipse beginning in 1920, but came back stronger than ever in the midst of the depression. And so it was that Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of his re-election campaign in 1936, had no compunction about rousing the feelings of the average American against the plutocrats who had turned against him. I quote:
"We have not come this far without a struggle and I assure you we cannot go further without a struggle.
"For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.
"For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.
"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace‹business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
"Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.
"I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."
Now Roosevelt, as I have pointed out here, actually enjoyed more bipartisan support of which Barack Obama could not even dream during his first term. The Tennessee Valley Authority, to take one example--a huge an unprecedented undertaking designed to put the government into the middle of the economic development of an impoverished region--was actually the brainchild of a great Republican Progressive, George Norris of Nebraska. Perhaps that liberated him to go after the irreconcilables among the Republicans in such emotional terms--and the electorate in 1936 rewarded him with the votes of 48 out of 50 states. Such rhetoric, however, has successfully been demonized by the Republican Party and its media propaganda arms as "class warfare," "socialism," "European-style", and so on, to such an extent that not one Democrat that I can see is speaking boldly and firmly for economic justice. Under Roosevelt marginal tax rates on the richest Americans reached 91%; now Nancy Pelosi is trying to sneak 50% rates on incomes of one million or more into the health bill, a proposal to which the President declares himself "open." The single-payer option, the real solution to our health care crisis, has been defined out of the debate as "too radical" from the beginning. Democrats seem to rely rhetorically on "reform," broader coverage, and cost-cutting (which is most certainly necessary), because true social and economic democracy has become the third rail of American politics. We have had one or two indications that high marginal tax rates might return, most notably at the time of the AIG bonuses earlier this year. If the nation is faced once again with a prolonged period of depression for the mass of the population, combined with the enrichment of the few, higher marginal rates could return. But we are nowhere near that point yet thanks to the long-term success of anti-government Republican rhetoric.
In fact, emotion lies at the heart of the health care debate in another way as well. Health care is one of the stronger sectors of our economy--most, if not all of which, I regret to say, are based upon the exploitation of the most primitive emotions. In the case of health care, the industry, backed by the resources both of the government (Medicare and Medicaid) and generous private health plans, exploits fear--the fear of pain (which gave us Vioxx, an almost completely unnecessary drug), of death (which leads to unnecessary screenings and surgeries for, for instance, prostate cancer), and even of not enough sex (which is fueling the multi-billion dollar "erectile dysfunction" industry which I encounter every time I watch a live American sports event.) The financial sector has grown by devising various forms of financial alchemy, including subprime mortgages and derivatives, both of which for a time turned lead into gold, and are now, in other ways, at work again. The defense industry fuels the fear of war (although that fear, interestingly enough, finally seems to be ebbing as a political force, as suggested by the defeat of the F-22 program.) And the food industry--about which I learned a great deal of depressing information in the film, Food, Inc.,, which I highly recommend--lives off our craving for salt, sugar, and fat. Agriculture and diet based upon health, or even genuine enjoyment of food, would look entirely different from what we have now. Meanwhile, large segments of another growth industry, academia--including the humanities such as literary criticism and history--have explicitly rejected reason in favor of emotional approaches based upon the emotional issues of the late twentieth century. The academy thrives, ironically, not because of what it teaches, but because it remains the gateway to highly paid professions.
Against this background, can President Obama succeed? He has, to be sure, critical emotional assets of his own, most notably his rhetorical skills, his own and his wife's personal charisma and his appeal to the under-30 generation, who are indeed far less emotional than their parents, who still dominate the media. And should he eventually be driven--as I think he will--to abandon bipartisanship by the unremitting hostility of the Republican Party, he will do so with a clear conscience and a good record of having tried.
Turning to other news of the week, President Obama also showed a charming ability to admit error when he substantially repudiated his initial comments about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. Refusing once again to duck a difficult issue, may I say that I think the President's second, more even-handed comment was very much in order. Most commentators are missing a critical issue in this particular episode. Professor Gates may have been a victim of racial profiling, but not by the police. The police did not initiate the incident--the young woman who saw the Professor and his chauffeur trying to force open the front door did. They were simply responding, as duty requires them to do, to a call. And to be quite frank, the manner in which Professor Gates greeted them did him no credit. The police have become far more aggressive towards everyone during my adult life, and I would suggest that anyone, regardless of race, age, or gender, who speaks to a police officer today in the way that he did is behaving very foolishly indeed. His attempt to dismiss the officers by showing them his Harvard ID, rather than his driver's license, was also unfortunate. Yes, the officer made a bad situation worse by allowing his own emotions to carry him away and putting on the handcuffs, and it would have been better if he had not. But it will indeed be fitting--and further testimony to our President's remarkable political skills--if the whole affair does indeed end with the officer, the professor and the President meeting in the White House for a beer or two. The question of how to translate such an event into the beginning of the reform of the American health care system, however, remains open.