Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Redistribution, Yes!

Ida May Fuller, the first Social Security recipient

The present skirmish in the Obamacare wars concerns whether those in the individual healthcare insurance market will be able to keep their existing plans.  Most people get their health insurance through their employer or through the federal government (i.e. Medicare or Medicaid), but 9% buy it as individuals directly from insurance companies.  As Obamacare swings into operation it’s causing many of those individuals – it’s hard to say exactly how many – to lose their plans, forcing them onto more expensive plans.  It seems unfair, and it’s proving to be a political disaster for the president, especially considering his repeated promises that this would never happen. Throw in the ongoing fiasco of the federal government’s insurance exchange website and not only does Obamacare begin to seem fundamentally flawed, but – as some kind conservatives have helpfully suggested – so does liberalism itself.

Hardly.  As the indispensible Jonathan Chait has explained in numerous clarifying pieces, if you wish to make sure that (nearly) everyone has adequate health insurance then there must be some mechanism for making the young, healthy and affluent help pay for the old, sick and poor.  For example, Obamacare forces insurance companies to cover people in the individual market with pre-existing medical conditions, most of whom have been denied coverage or forced to pay exorbitant premiums.  How is that additional coverage paid for?  Partly it comes from subsidies to poorer individuals from Medicaid, which is, of course, funded by taxpayers.  But Obamacare also raises the regulatory standards of health insurance plans with the specific intent of forcing healthy individuals to pay for better plans so that insurers can provide care for more expensive patients.  (It also does so to protect consumers from unreliable plans, like those with lifetime caps and serious lapses in coverage.)

But all this is true of employer-based health insurance as well; i.e. it forces those who need health care less to pay for those who need it more (subsidized by taxpayers).  Such plans usually have a set price, regardless of age, sex or medical status, thus allowing a large group of people to pay for the small number which will actually need expensive care.  Such risk-pooling is the basis of all health insurance – indeed, of all insurance.  Obamacare, as Ezra Klein says, “basically makes the individual market more like the group markets.”  That is, it makes it more redistributive.  Yes, redistribution rests at the heart of any insurance system, public or private.  And we’re all willing to contribute to those systems because the future is uncertain; even the best actuarial tables cannot predict with any certainty who will need the benefit of insurance.  We buy fire insurance even though, as Chait so eloquently puts it, “fire insurance is a bad deal for people whose houses don’t burn.”

But let’s take that one step further: Redistribution rests at the heart of all liberalism.  This is liberalism’s open secret, and one’s view of this principle makes or breaks one’s support for the entire liberal welfare project.  Every worker pays Medicare taxes, but Medicare only supports those over 65.  Medicaid only covers those below a specified financial threshold.  Even Social Security provides slightly higher benefits to lower wage workers (relative to their lifetime income).  For political reasons liberals generally attempt to disguise the redistributive aspects of their programs; for example, Social Security taxes are paid into individual accounts.  But to modern liberalism a secure retirement is an individual and social good that humanitarianism simply and firmly demands.  Could we consider ourselves a just society if there were people who had worked their whole lives who were forced to retire in destitution?  It was exactly destitution to which all too many workers were consigned by pre-welfare-state laissez-faire capitalism.  Relative poverty causes so much harm, we should feel ashamed if it denied people the requisites of even a modestly fulfilling life: nourishment, education, decent housing, a secure retirement and medical care.  And if those with less can’t pay for those minimal goods, then – as long as it’s practical and sustainable – those with more must foot the bill.  This is the essence of modern welfare state liberalism: Taxing the affluent at higher rates and spending that money on insuring that working and poor people posses the minimal requirements of civilized life.  (This is the crucial distinction between welfare liberalism and socialism, which advocates the equalization of most or all social goods; liberalism merely advocates minimal standards and for a much shorter list of goods.)  Redistribution is part of the rationale even for infrastructure and public institutions, such as roads, bridges, hospitals, universities, crime control, emergency management.  Such things are generally regarded as benefitting everyone, but they’re partially funded through progressive taxes, and there are such things as private highways, private police, etc.

Since conservatives generally equate what you deserve with what capitalism allocates to you, they consider any non-capitalist redistribution to be inherently unjust.  Pragmatic conservatives – quite a rare species! – may tolerate a very short list of public goods and social insurance programs, but only for the sake of market efficiency or social comity.  But, as conservatives, they would never concede that anyone has a moral claim on some good for which he could not pay, such as a poor person who cannot afford a college education.  But if you accept that there are some goods for which everyone should be forced to pay, even those who will never directly benefit from those goods, then you have accepted the rationale for the welfare state.  All that’s left at that point is to argue over which goods should be on the list.  Should we have public healthcare but not public housing?  Should we have food stamps but not public day care?  We have moved from the realm of moral justification to that of policy detail.  To be sure, the devil is in the details; even liberals like Ezra Klein dislike Obamacare’s employer mandate, for example.  But if you accept, for instance, that people without children should pay taxes for schools, or people who don’t drive should pay taxes for highways, then you support the welfare state in principle.  However much you feel the urge to make moral complaints about liberal social policies, you can reasonably make only practical or economic ones.  You are a redistributionist.  Accept it.

Most Americans – with their sober and practical generosity – easily accept the logic of liberalism.  That practicality lets them support universal healthcare in general while still seeing Obamacare’s faults.  Most of Obamacare’s complexities and confusions result from using private institutions – i.e. insurance companies – for public ends.  Thus, its redistribution involves the regulation of private insurance plans in addition to the typical liberal funding mechanism of direct taxation.  But given the moral urgency of universal coverage and the redistribution it demands, the only alternative would be a single-payer scheme, in which the federal government acts as the health insurance company for all Americans and pays for the system out of progressive taxes.  Once again, we can argue over policy details, but let’s have the adult version of that argument, in which we accept the necessity of federal government redistribution. Conservatives may rail against redistribution in principle, while they lambaste Obama for cutting Medicare funds. And liberals may tout the benefits of tight regulations on individual plans while swiftly running from any redistributionist rhetoric.  But, outside the Tea Party’s tightly sealed ideological ghetto, everyone in America actually supports redistribution. They support it because human decency demands it.  They support it because they know that someday they may come to need it themselves.  They may consider it a necessary evil or a positive good, but they understand, intellectually or viscerally, that modern life would be intolerable without it.  That is the open secret not just of liberal politics, but of all American politics.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Toward a Smarter Welfare State

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” – President Eisenhower

The recent government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff have deepened and illuminated the most important division within conservatism, that between the pragmatists and the radicals.  The latter were only too happy to use any means necessary – even the threat of economic conflagration – to slay the monsters of Obamacare and debt, while the pragmatists understood that political battles are won with more than the simple iron resolve that moral certainty bestows.  That is, the radicals have jettisoned pragmatic considerations almost entirely, as if process and outcome were dirty words, corruptions that only inhibit the full manly functioning of righteous moral strength.  How can you compromise when your enemy is the socialist vanguard pointing like a dagger at the heart of Americanism?  But alas, the real world – a Democratic Senate and president, an anxious business community, an unconvinced public – turned out to be less than tractable to idealistic holy war.  As the pragmatists perceived all along, bravado has its limitations.

But the differences between the pragmatists and radicals are more than merely tactical or stylistic, they are substantive as well.  In the past few weeks a few thinkers on the right have explicitly endorsed the welfare state as created by liberals in the 20th century.  Here’s Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute:

One of the things, in my view, that we get wrong in the free enterprise movement is this war against the social safety net, which is just insane. The government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society. And we somehow want to zero out food stamps or something, it’s nuts to want to be doing something like that. We have to declare peace on the safety net.

And James Pethokoukis, Brooks’ colleague at the AEI, acknowledges that without federal welfare programs our recent economic troubles would have impoverished many Americans:

The pain from the Great Recession, as bad it was, would have been far worse for middle- and low-income Americans if we were still in a sort of 1920s, Coolidgean world that many on the right these days seem to long for.

Even hard conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer agrees:

There’s no question of accepting the great achievements of liberalism — the achievements of the New Deal, of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare.  The idea that you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution is a consensual idea [accepted by] conservatives, at least the mainstream of conservatives.

When such important conservatives urge a declaration of peace on the social safety net, it’s news!  Until now this has been the position that dare not speak its name, at least not sincerely.  Conservatives constantly issue protestations of support for programs like Social Security and Medicare, but haven’t we known all along they didn’t really mean it?  Liberals, at least, have long suspected as much.  If Brooks, Krauthammer, et al. are urging conservatives to accommodate the New Deal doesn’t that mean that until now they’ve been waging war against it?  Haven’t they been trying to roll it back since, well, since it was created? Certainly Red State writer Erick Erickson understands that the founders of modern American conservatism hoped to roll it back:

The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed [i.e. accommodationist] right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan. They have made their peace with the New Deal, moving beyond Buckley. For that matter, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and most of the defunders have largely made their peace with the New Deal. And still National Review is too timid to join the merry band of defunders themselves too timid to approach the parameters under which William F. Buckley started his charge.

To Erickson even the rabid radical insurgent Senators throwing their own bodies into the gears of the welfare state – pledging their sacred honor and risking almost certain presidential candidacy – have too easily resigned themselves to the slow suffocation of liberty that is the welfare state.  Has extremism for its own sake become Erickson’s pre-eminent value?

If the radicals consider Cruz and Lee to be too accommodating then they naturally perceive the welfare state concessions of Brooks, Krauthammer et al. as nothing more than abject surrender to the statist enemy.  To Andrew C. McCarthy of National Review, it’s obvious that all real conservatives oppose the safety net; to accept it is to “deviate significantly from . . . the tradition of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan.”  No real conservative could accept “redistributionist schemes that fleece some citizens for the benefit of others.”  McCarthy’s definition of conservatism precludes support for any program based upon progressive taxation, i.e. everything on Krauthammer’s list.  The entire liberal welfare state project is just a huge scam:

The New Deal and its Great Society successor programs, by contrast, are frauds designed to create permanent dependency on government (and fealty to the party of government).

The welfare state is a devious instrument designed to enslave the population.  The well-off are tied down by taxes and regulation and their lessers are urged to discard their self-sufficiency and lounge lazily in the gilded cage of government largesse.  And liberal politicians sit at the top, laughing malevolently as they corrupt the moral principles Americans once held dear:

There is no disciplining or escaping Leviathan. And if, as is inevitable, federal officials expand their outlandish schemes and promise favored constituencies more than they can deliver, they just borrow or print ever more money: Government borrows from its tapped-out self, monetizing its debts, degrading our currency to reward sloth and punish thrift even as it steals from future generations.

Even a onetime moderate like Mitt Romney seemed to actually believe such foolishness, or pretended so to raise money.  But does this McCarthyite nonsense represent the mainstream of conservatism?

Reihan Salam – a genuinely thoughtful conservative, one always worth reading – puts all this in perspective:

Recently, a friend of mine observed that conservatives can be divided into roughly three camps with regards to the idea of a federally-financed social safety net: (1) there are those who oppose it on normative grounds and who believe that political efforts should be geared towards rolling it back; (2) there are those who oppose it on normative grounds yet who recognize that its political entrenchment can’t be wished away, and so they believe that political efforts should be geared towards containing its size, restraining its worst excesses, improving it at the margins, and rolling it back when the opportunity presents itself; and (3) there are those who affirmatively believe that the federal government ought to play a role in financing the safety net, yet who are keen to make it as fiscally sustainable, work-friendly, and pro-growth as possible.

Both the first and second groups – call them purists and pragmatists, respectively – wish to cleanse America of the corruption that is the liberal welfare state; but the pragmatists, daunted by its deep popular support, wish to fight it with prudence and stealth.  The third group – call them technocrats – wants to remake it in conservative fashion.  The purists and the pragmatists differ only in means; the technocrats differ from the other two in ends.  Most of the Tea Party clearly falls into the first group, while most of the GOP establishment falls into groups two and three (or is it only group two?).  Indeed, the goal of the Tea Party is to make the Republicans exclusively purist!  And the purists seem to have trouble distinguishing the pragmatists from the technocrats.  McCarthy, for instance, seems to think the establishment is entirely made of technocrats:

It is not an exaggeration to say the GOP establishment is more sympathetic to Obama’s case for the centralized welfare state than to the Tea Party’s case for limited government and individual liberty.

No, it is quite an exaggeration, as any liberal can attest.  Salam’s categories are quite illuminating. Consider that while many conservatives denounced Romney’s 47% remarks, many supported them.

But the purists are indulging themselves in one great denial fantasy.  Simply put: the welfare state is here to stay.  Conservatives typically make a great show of accepting the sad inevitabilities of human existence – notably social inequality – while decrying the liberal urge to improve society as foolish utopianism.  But isn’t the welfare state, even with its systemic downsides, part of the fabric of society, and a beneficial part, at that?  Doesn’t it make capitalism more humane?  Doesn’t the public – even the Tea Party with their “Keep Government out of my Medicare” signs – demand its continuance? Aren’t purist conservatives – wide-eyed idolaters of virtuous, anarchic capitalism – the true utopians?  The group we’re calling conservative pragmatists are only pragmatic about methods; there is nothing pragmatic about hoping to repeal the New Deal.  Not because the American people would loudly object; but because modern capitalism unfettered by a strong, countervailing welfare state would cause intolerable economic and social suffering.  Indeed, it was the concession to pragmatism – a classic conservative principle from Aristotle to Burke – that brought liberals from their classical free market idealism to the modern welfare state meliorism they now advance, if sometimes in excess.

Ah yes, liberal excess.  Wouldn’t conservatives better serve their country by making themselves the skeptical interrogators of liberal schemes rather than romantic, bomb-throwing revolutionaries determined to blow them up?  Do they wish to destroy America in order to save it, or do they wish to really make it better?  Conservatives are painfully aware that the real world, with its overwhelming complications and obstinate unpredictability can confound the noblest and best researched reform plans.  Humans have a way of undermining the most incisive sociology.  Which isn’t to say that no program can be well designed or positively beneficial; many are.  It’s to say that of all the contributions that conservatives might be disposed to make to our arguments over the structure and scope of our national welfare state, the most helpful is keeping liberals humble.  Constructive conservatism can keep liberal feet on the ground.  And it could force liberal awareness of the genuine moral dangers – dependency, rent-seeking, alienation – lurking behind all welfare programs; not in order to sabotage those programs, but to strengthen them.  Together, hopeful liberalism and cautious conservatism could forge a smarter welfare state.

And liberals must learn not to confuse constructive, technocratic conservatives with the pragmatic or purist ones.  Not all conservative welfare proposals are demolition plans in disguise.  Though, sad to say, many are.  Does anyone really believe that George W. Bush proposed the partial privatization of Social Security in 2005 in order to save Social Security rather than starve it of funds?  And no reasonable person can mistake Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a system of ever-less-valuable vouchers for a plan to save that program, despite protestations to the contrary.  Even if ideologues like McCarthy find Ryan’s proposal much too welfare-friendly, the numbers simply prove otherwise.  And all the recent supposed panic over the size of the national debt is primarily a technocratic excuse for the purist desire to reduce spending; if the debt was their real concern conservatives would be only too happy to raise taxes as well. Liberals can be forgiven for not trusting technocrats when the principal intent of the pragmatists is to trick people into thinking they’re technocrats!  The best recent example of liberals reaching out to conservative technocracy is the Obamacare saga.  President Obama, the Conciliator in Chief, crafted a market-friendly health insurance program originally proposed by seemingly genuine technocrats in reputably conservative think tanks, successfully launched in Massachusetts by its genuinely technocratic Republican governor, and supported by a whole host of (quite transparently) pragmatic conservative heavyweights.  What did liberals get for their attempted compromise?  Purist stonewalling, mendacious propaganda and McCarthyite paranoia.  At any stage in the legislative process conservatives could have joined in and helped improve Obamacare; even now they stubbornly refuse to do so.

How can liberals hope to deal in good faith with a party so dominated by purists and pragmatists?  A party in which the purists think their own pragmatists are traitors to the essence of America?  A party whose pragmatists deliberately conceal their true purist intentions?  Genuine conservative technocracy seems as elusive a mirage as the purist dream of a dismantled welfare state.  We seem to be stuck for the foreseeable future with a Republican Party and a conservative movement in thrall to populist Tea Party purism.  And we see now that the real conservative divide is not, as is normally understood, that with purists on one side and pragmatists and technocrats on the other.  Rather it’s between those who would – with whatever tactics – undermine the welfare state and those who would improve it, between conservatism as a small-government crusade and conservatism as accommodation to the real world.  But this is quite an uneven division; adult conservatism seems to exist only among a very few thoughtful writers, like Reihan Salam, Conor Friedersdorf, Daniel Larison, Russ Douthat, David Brooks.

If there is hope it resides with what some have called Sam's Club Republicans; that is, working class whites with generally conservative instincts who nevertheless wish the federal government would do more to ameliorate their tough economic conditions.  Such a group might make a respectable constituency for a genuinely technocratic Republican Party.  For the moment they seem to lack the populist passion displayed by their upscale, better-educated Tea Party overlords; but a smart politician might appeal to them with a technocratic program that satisfies both their instincts and their interests.  There are perfectly workable and sustainable conservative technocratic proposals, as Obamacare itself is beginning to show (alarmism to the contrary). Widespread support for a moderated welfare state would go a long way toward marginalizing Tea Party purism and easing the unbearable polarization that causes us so much grief.   The welfare state – fought for by working people, desperately needed by the poor, embraced by a middle class frightened of capitalist cruelty, wrangled from hard struggle against concentrated wealth and privilege – is too precious, too necessary to be lost.  The good news is that it won’t be.  The bad news is that one of our two major parties is dominated by those who don’t think that’s good news.  At least – and at last! – Arthur Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Andrew McCarthy and Reihan Salam have made all that quite clear.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Red October

Backward to utopia!

For 16 days this month, conservatives in Congress deliberately shut down the federal government and threatened to default on the national debt, thereby destroying the world economy, in an attempt to force Democrats to repeal Obamacare and accede to their entire economic agenda.  How do conservatives justify such shockingly irresponsible and ruthless tactics?  There are three basic defenses they give and, like so much of American discourse, they revolve around the question of the proper relationship between the citizenry and the political elite.  That is, who really represents the people?

Conservatives loudly answer, “We do!”  In the first defense of their tactical radicalism conservatives claim to represent a majority of American opinion, a majority that hates Obamacare, big government and the size of the federal debt.  Call this the populist defense.  Conservatives represent the people against a governing elite that has become an unresponsive ruling class, a technocratic, snobbish, culturally alien aristocracy, imposing heavy regulations and stiff taxes on a public it disdains, while exempting its cronies and contributors.  In this view the American people are noble and the government, captive to special interests, fails to channel that nobility.  Obamacare is merely the most recent and most egregious liberal imposition.  In fact, it’s so onerous and so indicative of the further horrors waiting to leap out of the liberal imagination onto the backs of the American people that anything is justified in trying to stop it.

But the populist defense just fails.  Public opinion polls do show a majority opposed to Obamacare, but it’s a slim majority, and a sizeable part of the opposition comes from the left, from those who wish the government was more involved in health care, either through a public option or a single payer plan.  Also, individual parts of the law are quite popular.  Most Americans do agree in theory that both the federal government and the federal debt are too big.  But those anti-government convictions evaporate in the harsh sun of majority support for particular government programs like Social Security and Medicare, programs so popular that most Americans would rather raise taxes than modify them or reduce their benefits.  The 2012 Republican candidate for president promised to cancel Obamacare on his first day in office; he lost decisively.  Democrats retained control of the Senate, and Republicans lost the national popular vote for the House of Representatives (but held the House because of misrepresentative districting).  And most importantly, most Americans explicitly condemn the confrontational tactics conservative have employed.  The majority supports neither conservative ends nor conservative means.  Indeed, conservatives know this all too well; it was recognition of public disfavor that convinced GOP leaders to surrender.

The second conservative defense is less easily dismissed.  It admits that conservatives are a minority (albeit a sizeable one) and that conservatives did in fact lose last year’s elections.  But, it demands relief from the impositions of big government – Obamacare in particular – on the basis of respect for minority rights.  Call this the libertarian defense.  Conservatives bravely stand for the principle that no one, conservative or otherwise, should be coerced with individual mandates, excessive regulations, high taxes, or any other unwelcome control from the government, even a majority controlled one.  John Hayward of (his italics):

The only way to prevent power from building to a dangerously explosive pressure is to install a relief valve in the political system: the right of meaningful dissent, which means the right of refusal.  The majority wants to do something I disagree with?  Fine, knock yourselves out.  Let me know how it goes.  You might even persuade me to get on board, one of these days.

The populist defense claims that the people want to be left alone.  The libertarian defense claims they have a right to be left alone.  In the libertarian view the American people are something of a menace, a thoughtless mob using the blunt instrument of the federal government to oppress resistant minorities.  Government fails because it’s too expansive; it interferes and intrudes more than it should, much more, definitely, than the Founders wished, more than the Constitution allows.  The Constitution was explicitly created to preclude modern liberal paternalism and conservatives are therefore permitted to override it (for example, by putting the national credit in question or enforcing Senatorial supermajorities) in order to protect it.  They’re also justified in generously amending it to return it to its original purpose of outlawing modern liberalism.  Radicalism in the service of tradition seems to be a way of life for this crop of conservatives.

Does the Constitution prohibit the welfare/regulatory state?  This is much too big a question for this small essay, but decades of Supreme Court decisions, going back to 1937, answer in the negative.  Even Obamacare’s mandate that individuals purchase health insurance under threat of a tax penalty has been deemed constitutional by a conservative Supreme Court presided over by a conservative Chief Justice.  The libertarian principle, that there are individual rights which no legislature may infringe, is a vitally important principle, one which we violate at our peril.  But it’s not obvious that one shouldn’t be coerced into supporting a health insurance system that sooner or later one will come to rely upon.  Everyone pays taxes for public schools, even people without children.  The libertarian defense is not an obvious sham like the populist defense, but unless one is an anarchist absolutist who believes no coercion is ever justified, it’s not so self-evidently compelling as to justify the radical confrontationalism of early October.

The third conservative defense is similar to the populist defense, in that it sees Obamacare as the imposition of a non-representative ruling class, but it makes no pretense of speaking for a majority.  It charges that Obamacare lacks moral legitimacy because of how it was passed.  For one thing, it was passed without any Republican votes; as noted conservative writer Charles Krauthammer puts it:

From Social Security to civil rights to Medicaid to Medicare, never in the modern history of the country has major social legislation been enacted on a straight party-line vote.  Never.

And it was passed through non-standard legislative procedures, using budgetary rules to avoid a Republican filibuster.  Red State columnist Daniel Horowitz wrote on October 4th:

Obamacare was passed through budget reconciliation.  So when they felt it was convenient for them to inject Obamacare into the budget process; namely, for the purpose of avoiding the 60-vote threshold, they were more than happy to do so.  Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Now that we have approached the implementation date, which coincides with the budget deadline, it’s time to use that same process to uproot a law that is unworkable and unpopular.

When in the middle of the 2010 Congressional healthcare debate, the very blue state of Massachusetts sent a Republican to the Senate expressly to stop Obamacare, Democrats overrode this “unmistakable message of popular opposition.”  Democrats started this game of flouting legislative and democratic norms; when Republicans play grand obstructionists they are just responding in kind.  Call this the hardball defense.  In the hardball view the parties are ruthless gangs and the American people are the turf they fight over.  (The hardball defense, of course, does nothing to defend the conservative debt ceiling demand to enact their entire economic program; it can, at best, justify extraordinary measures only for stopping Obamacare itself.)  To Krauthammer, Democratic legislative chicanery was so dismissive of dissident views and so ruthless in its determination that it more that justifies the angry, combative Tea Party response it provoked:

It’s the Democrats who gave life to a spontaneous, authentic, small-government opposition — a.k.a. the tea party — with their unilateral imposition of a transformational agenda during the brief interval when they held a monopoly of power.  That interval is over. The current unrest is the residue of that hubris.

The hardball defense, in effect, accuses Democrats of acting like Leninists.  Yes, Leninists; but in a particular way.  Vladimir Lenin redirected Russian Marxism from a broad-based, democratic, trade union movement into a small, dedicated, aggressive vanguard party which alone perceived and expressed true proletarian class consciousness.  He believed the workers as a whole could never fully grasp their objective situation and could not become the basis of the coming socialist utopia without the strict direction of such a vanguard.  Lenin’s primary contribution to political theory is the notion that an ideologically enlightened cadre can understand and represent the people better than they can themselves.  And when an unlikely procession of historical events led to the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the raising of the red flag over St. Petersburg, Lenin used that seizure of state power to impose a Communist transformation upon an unwilling society.  What Krauthammer, Horowitz, etc. are saying is that modern liberals feel justified in imposing Obamacare and other big government social programs because they believe they understand the economic interests of working people better than those working people themselves.  The Democrats won complete control of the federal government in 2009 and 2010 only because of the unlikely combination of revulsion against the outgoing Republican president plus the celebratory appeal of a black presidential candidate plus a terrible financial collapse; they used that power to force their centrally-controlled medical insurance scheme upon a people who’d made it clear they didn’t want it.  Liberals are convinced, because of their technocratic arrogance and their over-educated sanctimony, of their right to act in the interests of the little people.

Of the three defenses, this is the only compelling one.  After all, Democratic criticism of recent Republican brinksmanship is procedural; no one disputes their right to oppose Obamacare or negotiate over the budget, only whether they should do so by shutting down the government or threatening a default.  And Democratic procedures for enacting Obamacare would not make a shining example for a civics textbook.  But neither were they as unsavory as conservatives portray.  Obamacare was one of the main planks of Obama’s 2008 election platform, an election he won by a substantial 7 point margin.  That same year, Democrats increased their Senate majority to 59 out of 100 seats and their House majority to 257 out 435 seats (having received 56% of the vote).  After passing economic stimulus in February of 2009, Democrats turned to healthcare.  And Krauthammer dismisses the notion that Democrats genuinely tried to be bipartisan about it:

The Democrats insist they welcomed contributing ideas from Republicans. Rubbish. Republicans proposed that insurance be purchasable across state lines. They got nothing. They sought serious tort reform. They got nothing.

But failure to include two (seriously flawed) policy proposals does not constitute Leninism.  Democrats spent months negotiating with more tractable Republicans Senators like Mike Enzi, Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch and Olympia Snowe, trying to get them on board by suggesting less generous and more market-centered plans.  Many Democrats, possibly including Obama, might have preferred Medicare for all, but they refrained from pushing that because of resistance from within their own caucus (not much of a Leninist monolith there), even though single payer has garnered majority support in some polls.  And yes, only Democrats voted for Obamacare, but that was because Republicans boycotted it as part of a deliberate political ploy to deny it bipartisan legitimacy. They did negotiate with Democrats at first, but it’s hard not to conclude they did so in simple bad faith with the deliberate intention of delaying the bill’s passage in order to discredit it in the public mind.  Historically, major social legislation won support in both parties because historically the parties were not ideologically consistent.  Before the great post-60’s political realignment there were liberals and conservatives in both parties.  Consider Krauthammer’s list of major social legislation: Social Security, Civil Rights, Medicare, Medicaid.  He seems to celebrate them, but he neglects one very interesting point: they were all liberal initiatives that are tremendously popular now that were strenuously opposed by conservatives at the time.  Indeed, opposition to such initiatives was what defined them as conservative!  In 1961 Ronald Reagan, then a famous actor and aspiring conservative activist, famously predicted the enactment of Medicare would mean the death of freedom, a stance that might deepen the confusion of present-day Tea Partiers holding signs reading “Keep government out of my Medicare!”  If liberals waited for conservative support no important social legislation would ever be passed.

And why should Democrats have been forced to reach Horowitz’s 60 vote threshold?  He’s referring to the filibuster, a Senate rule which requires 60 or more Senators to allow a bill to come to a vote.  (Forgive the following short walk through the weeds of legislative process, but it’s necessary to clarify a point important enough that Tea Partiers claim it justifies their aggressive tactics.)  Historically the filibuster was invoked infrequently, but after 2000 it began to be used more and more until now it has almost come to be considered part of the normal functioning of the Senate.  This violates the spirit (if not the letter) of the Constitution, which demands super-majorities for specific votes (such as ratification of foreign treaties) and requires nothing more than simple majorities for most votes.  The Democrats had 60 votes after the defection of Arlen Specter in April of 2009 and passed their version of Obamacare in the Senate in December.  But they lost the 60th vote on January 19, 2010 when Republican Scott Brown won the special election to fill the seat emptied by the death of Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion.  Brown had indeed campaigned with the promise of maintaining the filibuster against Obamacare and thereby preventing its passage.  The House of Representatives had passed its own version in November, but Brown’s election and promise of filibuster meant the House and Senate bills could not be negotiated through normal procedure.  Democrats, determined to pass universal health care after decades of effort, decided the House would simply pass the Senate bill as it was and make any desired changes through supplementary legislation passed in the Senate via the budget reconciliation process, which doesn’t require 60 votes.  It’s only the passing of this smaller accompanying act (which contained only budgetary changes to the main bill) that Horowitz is complaining about, not the passage of Obamacare itself.  If conservatives were justified in using an extra-Constitutional device like the filibuster to block Obamacare in a repudiation of huge Democratic electoral victories, why were Democrats so unjustified in using budget reconciliation to pass minor changes?

There’s a word for ruthlessly using technicalities to win on policy: hardball.  But hardball is not the same as Leninism.  On the other hand, parties tend to employ hardball when they lack broad popular support.  Was that true of Democrats and Obamacare?  The Democrats had won the presidency and large majorities in both houses of Congress by running on – among other things – universal healthcare.  But wait: “among other things.”  People vote for all sorts of reasons and not everyone that voted Democrat did so to enact Obamacare; though, by the same token, probably not everyone who voted Republican did so to block it.  If there was overwhelming popular support for Obamacare – as there had been for Social Security, Medicare, etc. – it would have been quite hard for Republican members of Congress to vote against it.  The final Senate version passed in the House by only 219 to 212; 34 Democrats voted no, hardly an overwhelming acclamation.  This is where Krauthammer’s charge of Democratic partisanship has some validity. 

The last decades have seen increasing polarization, and a relatively small majority supported universal healthcare while a sizeable minority vehemently opposed it.  Democrats did try to mollify that polarization by modeling their healthcare legislation upon moderate proposals by the two most important conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and touted by Newt Gingrich and other Congressional conservatives, and passed into law by the Republican governor of Massachusetts.  Conservatives responded with legislative stonewalling, some even conceding that they had never seriously meant their own proposals but only pretended so to undercut liberal plans.  Indeed, over the course of the healthcare debate, liberals reached out to conservatives and were repeatedly rebuffed.  Most of that rebuff was political and cynical – more hardball – but some of it was based upon honest differences over the role of government in a free society.  That is, by 2009 polarization had grown to the point that, reasonably or not, conservatives honestly wanted no universal healthcare to pass.  When the Democrats passed genuinely contentious legislation in such a polarized atmosphere and through such unorthodox methods it was bound to exacerbate polarization and partisan bitterness.  It’s true that much of that polarization before the passage of Obamacare was part of a deliberate conservative strategy designed to increase polarization, but Democrats need not have responded in kind.  Hardball against your opponents may be appropriate revenge for the hardball you’ve endured, but, contra Krauthammer, Leninism as retribution for Leninism is not so glibly justified.  And when Democrats used hardball to overcome lack of popular support it was a genuine example of the Leninist attitude.  But the most objectionable example of Democratic Leninism was the dismissal of Scott Brown’s election.  When such a blue state replaced its longtime very liberal Senator with a Republican expressly for the purpose of blocking Democratic legislation, it constituted an unmistakable loss of popular confidence.  When Democrats determined to pass Obamacare anyway it expressed greater trust in its own ideological analysis than in public opinion.

But Republicans have been guilty of the Leninist attitude as well, and more systematically and to a greater degree.  George W. Bush acquired the presidency with less than 48% of the popular vote, but he governed as if he’d won a broad conservative mandate.  From the Bush era to the present, conservatives have consistently pushed for upper end tax cuts, claiming to represent widespread populist demand for them; there isn’t any. Even during the Great Recession, conservatives have anguished over the debt in the name of a public that is actually much more concerned about jobs.  But the real problem of conservative Leninism is that it’s baked right into the cake of conservative populism.  Consider again the conservative defenses of this month’s confrontationalism.  The populist defense claims conservatives represent a majority when they clearly don’t.  Seems like everyday political deceit; but is there something more?  The libertarian defense claims, in effect, that conservatives should be exempt from certain government actions, even those democratically passed and duly adjudicated.  And as we saw, hardball tactics typically indicate lack of popular support, and October’s hardball conservatism seems to lack all scruples about thwarting popular will.  Do conservatives feel themselves in possession of some alternative to a numerical majority that conveys comparable, or even superior, authority?

It’s a mainstay of conservative folklore that Republicans loose presidential elections when they nominate mushy moderates, like John McCain and Mitt Romney, and win with full-fledged, reliable conservatives, like Ronald Reagan (he may constitute that entire list).  They really seem to believe, against all evidence, that the American heart belongs to them and can be made to beat vibrantly again at the entreaties of a true-blue conservative savior-statesman.  That is, conservatives believe they understand the American essence in a way non-conservatives just cannot.  Only they appreciate the almost perfect constellation of cultural and political institutions – a free market, a religious and temperate populace, and divided and limited government – bequeathed by the Founders; and only they feel the appropriate urgency of freeing ourselves of liberal corruption and returning to that original bliss.  That’s what it means to be conservative!   This inside knowledge of the true American cultural essence is what endows conservatives with the moral-political authority to override mere numerical majorities.  This is conservative cultural Leninism: the belief that all true Americans are conservative beneath the skin, and if not, then they aren’t true Americans and they’re views need not be respected.  This attitude is widespread, habitual and fundamental on the American right.  And it’s this minority populist arrogance which is the true justification for the shockingly hardball conservative strategy of shutdown and debt threat, a strategy that constitutes the single most egregious act of Leninism in generations.

All political movements, even democratic ones, must have leaders and experts; in a word: elites.  There are subtle and complex issues that much of the public – actually living private lives detached from the inside baseball of modern government – simply doesn’t appreciate.  Consider that the citizenry wishes to not raise the debt ceiling.  They are correct in thinking that raising it allows the government to acquire more debt, but they don’t seem to understand that it allows the government to acquire more debt in order to pay for government spending that Congress and the president have already agreed upon and are legally committed to spend.  Failure to raise it would prevent the government from paying its already existing debts, which the world financial system rests upon; such failure would likely lead to global economic Armageddon.   This is a simple matter of fact upon which the public is simply wrong.  Congressmen, Federal Reserve governors, department heads, news professionals, academics, advisors and bureaucrats understand this issue in ways that much of the public does not and probably never will.  That’s not a slam against anyone.  The American people generally display reasonable and balanced judgment; they have good instincts.  Consider their reaction to recent Republican extremist tactics.  But it’s not the job of private citizens to be informed on every aspect of fiscal policy.  Responsible, informed, prudent elites are as necessary to a functioning democracy as is a free and responsible populace.

Of course, not all elites are responsible.  During the debate over Obamacare, Republicans filled the public discourse will all sorts of dishonest accusations: death panels, socialized medicine, government takeover, etc.; such lies continue now in the implementation phase. The public, with its own ideological inclinations and its less-than-perfect knowledge of the issues can be too susceptible to propaganda and obfuscation.  That susceptibility helps explain much of the change in opinion on healthcare between Obama’s election and Scott Brown’s.  This is one of the inescapable limitations of democracy.  (Sometimes the elite falls prey to its own propaganda: apparently several Republican Congressmen seem to think a default would actually be beneficial!  But what’s forgivable in the general public is unbearably shameful in a public servant.) 

Acknowledging the people’s imperfections opens one up to the very charge of Leninism, a charge that can be quite powerful in a country with such a deep populist tradition.  Such accusations arise, for example, whenever a party tries to explain its own electoral failure.  In a democracy you’re obligated to believe that your side loses (either from messaging failure, but that’s the lamest copout there is, or) out of ignorance; i.e. the people don’t realize how wrong they are.  Conservatives believe people vote liberal for the free government goodies; they are morally weak and don’t appreciate the moral satisfaction of economic independence and personal responsibility.  Liberals believe people vote conservative out of mistaken beliefs about the moral nature of capitalist outcomes.  They believe that big government humanizes capitalism and makes it work for everyone rather than just the rich; when working people vote against liberalism it must be that devious conservatives are manipulating their cultural and racial fears.  Obama famously said in 2008 (in a closed-door meeting) that when working people feel the economic squeeze, “it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  But Leninism does not consist in believing the people are mistaken or limited; it consists in believing one is justified, based upon one’s possession of special ideological truth, to act on important issues against the public’s clear wishes.  Democracy is necessary because without accountability elites run the system for their own benefit.  If democracy without elites becomes a mob ripe for demagoguery, elites without popular control become an aristocracy.  Leninism is an alibi for an aspiring aristocracy.

But even liberals at their Leninist worst, as when passing unpopular transformational legislation, or conservatives at their even worse Leninist worst, as when threatening to blow up the world economy unless their losing economic agenda is enacted in full, are radically different from historical Marxist-Leninists in one very important way: neither one is a small, purely intellectual movement.  Both liberalism and conservatism are broad-based popular movements.  Both the Democratic and Republican parties are small “d” democratic parties in that the grass roots of each party has enormous influence over its policy.  Indeed, the Republican establishment and business leaders lament how powerful the Tea Party insurgency has become within the GOP.  The actual Lenin led his vanguard party to violent revolution and totalitarian control and no reasonable person fears those things in America in the foreseeable future.  But the Leninist attitude is a serious threat to national comity and unity; it exacerbates polarization; it makes people angry; it robs them of their pragmatism and generosity; it makes them less receptive to reason and compromise and more susceptible to propaganda and demagoguery.  And there is one other very important and quite fortunate difference between Lenin’s red October of 1917 and the red state Tea Party insurrection we just endured:  Our red October failed.  Thank goodness.  And thank the good sense of the America people.