Thursday, March 25, 2010

Engaging Our Opponents

Now that the progressive side has won the heatlh care battle, I'm feeling very generous. So, I'll take the congratulations of Jonah Goldberg in a better spirit than they were intended.

First: Congratulations to President Obama and the Democratic leadership. You won dirty against bipartisan opposition from both Congress and the majority of Americans. You've definitely polarized the country even more, and quite possibly bankrupted us, too. But hey, you won. Bubbly for everyone.
Thanks Jonah. You're a prince.
Of course, progressives want to achieve a lot more than monumental health reform. We also want to reform the financial sector, enact cap and trade energy legislation, and move on immigration reform. In the progressive vision, the United States is a multi-cultural society in which the federal government regulates capitalism to serve the common good and pushes economic growth by stimulating the transition to a green economy. Given that the Democrats won the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress, it should be no surprise that progressives are pushing for legislation that promotes our idea of progress.
Where to go from here?

Well, we can thank our friend Jonah Goldberg for identifying some of the problems. Of course, he's wrong to think that a majority of the American public opposes health reform. According to a CNN poll, 59% disapproved of health care legislation, but 13% disapproved because the final bill did not go far enough. The real numbers were more like 48% for large-scale health reform and 46% against.
Still, Goldberg is correct to point out that passing health care reform did result in further polarization of our divided society. Best represented by the Tea Party movement, the popular right has been inflamed like it hasn't been inflamed really since the McCarthy era. Tea Party events last April and last September are not nearly as big as protest gatherings on the left (200,000 recently marched in a parade for immigration reform). But they represent the biggest "conservative" protests ever and have a threatening aura because of the minor gun displays of Tea Party Activists. With grassroots Tea Party support, Republican Scott Brown scored a monumental upset over the Democratic candidate ("she who must not be named") in the election to replace Ted Kennedy. Treating health care legislation as socialism, comparing the passage of ObamaCare to 9-11, and manifesting a fair amount of racism, homophobia, and nullification talk, the Tea Party right represents a new spasm of polarization in American society and has largely been inspired by the push for health reform.
But what is the precise problem that the Tea Party Movement poses for the Obama administration, the Democrats, and Progressives more broadly?
That's a more difficult question.

One way to address this question is to view the Tea Party movement as a barometer of anti-progressive sentiment in the U. S. According to a CNN poll, about 20% of the electorate strongly supports the Tea Party with another 15% moderately supporting them. If Tea Party support is motivated by a reaction against liberal policies, it is safe to say that 20% of the electorate is beyond the reach of progressive appeals and that another 15% is very difficult to reach for various reasons. My impression of the Tea Party movement is that it has many overlapping motivations, including abhorrence of big government, anger over corruption, homophobia, racism, anti-immigrant convictions, neo-confederate sentiment, and an all-purpose anxiety over "change." What all of these points of view share is a blanket hostility to the liberal world views of white progressives. That's why Tea Party support is a decent barometer of anti-progressive sentiment.

Given that I believe that progressives should pretty much write off Tea Party supporters as a lost cause. For Red State progressives like myself, this can be fairly painful. A lot of my relatives, quite a few of my students, and any number of the people I see at the local Walmart and Krogers would have Tea Party sympathies. It's painful to just say "let's not bother. We can't reach these people."

But we should.

Still, progressives should give extra effort to engaging and debating with the Tea Baggers instead of devoting all our rhetorical energy to portraying the Tea Baggers as outside the bounds of political debate--as racists, bigots, confederates, crazies, "freaks" or a "freak show" (here's a couple of places where I've made this mistake myself). Right now, the progressive media is focusing on Tea Bagger violence in response to the passage of health reform and the inadequacy of the Republican response.

Certainly, there's a significant place for demonizing attacks on the offices of Democratic members of the House, threats to people's lives, or cutting gas lines. Intimidation is one of the main motifs of the Tea Baggers and much of the reason that the Tea Baggers try intimidation tactics is that they view liberals and democrats as being weak, quick to cower, and effeminate in the stereotypical sense. In the same way, the explanations of Tea Party racism as just something that happens when people "really get angry" are the same kinds of rationalizations that Southern segregationalists made to justify lynching, racial discrimination, and the exclusion of blacks from juries, voting, and office holding.

And we should be condemning this kind of sick stuff for what it really is.

Still, we can't just demonize the Tea Party types. Whether we like it or not, the Tea Party activists have become the main opposition to progressive ideas and Democratic policy agendas in this country. The Republican leadership is being driven by the Tea Party rather than the other way around. Whether we like it or not, moderates and independents are going to listen to Tea Party rhetoric on health care, cap and trade, and financial reform. Because the Tea Party Movement is the main source of diversity in American politics, moderates and independents are going to look to them for an alternative to progressive ideas no matter how much, or how justifiably, we portray Tea Party activists as beyond the pale.

That means that we have to engage Tea Party activists on the role of government regulation in our economy, the morality of the legislative process, and what it means to be an American in the 21st century. Jonah Goldberg claims that health insurance companies are now "heavily regulated government contractors" rather than independent companies. We need our arguments about health insurance companies. Personally, I think we should be arguing that health insurance companies wouldn't be in this situation if they were following the examples of Google and UPS and making money by providing terrific versions of much needed services at low cost. But it's clear that the health insurance companies have decided to raise their profits by developing innovative ways to deny their customers coverage instead. That's what withdrawing coverage from extremely sick people and denying people coverage for pre-existing conditions is about--raising profits through exploiting sick people. And yes! Taking people's money and then denying them the service of re-imbursing medical costs is a form of exploitation.

That's why it was necessary to increase the goverment regulation of health insurance companies and the Obama administration is going to press for heavier regulation of the financial services industry for analogous reasons.

This is what progressives need to do on all issues. We need to keep coming up with fresh perspectives on progressive positions as a way to stay engaged with moderates and independents while we also respond to the various "freak show" outrages of the Tea Party movement.

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