Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose

Comparing America’s patchwork health care system to Europe’s social democratic paradise is a bit of a hackneyed genre at this point, but this op-ed by writer Anu Partanen does a good job of re-framing the rhetoric of “freedom” that Republicans have used as a rationale for reducing government’s role:

The trouble with a free-market approach is that health care is an immensely complicated and expensive industry, in which the individual rarely has much actual market power. It is not like buying a consumer product, where choosing not to buy will not endanger one’s life. It’s also not like buying some other service tailored to individual demands, because for the most part we can’t predict our future health care needs.

The point of universal coverage is to pool risk, for the maximum benefit of the individual when he or she needs care. And the point of having the government manage this complicated service is not to take freedom away from the individual. The point is the opposite: to give people more freedom. Arranging health care is an overwhelming task, and having a specialized entity do the negotiating, regulating and perhaps even much of the providing is just vastly more efficient than forcing everyone to go it alone.

What passes for an American health care system today certainly has not made me feel freer. Having to arrange so many aspects of care myself, while also having to navigate the ever-changing maze of plans, prices and the scarcity of appointments available with good doctors in my network, has thrown me, along with huge numbers of Americans, into a state of constant stress. And I haven’t even been seriously sick or injured yet.

As a United States citizen now, I wish Americans could experience the freedom of knowing that the health care system will always be there for us regardless of our employment status. I wish we were free to assume that our doctors get paid a salary to look after our best interests, not to profit by generating billable tests and procedures. I want the freedom to know that the system will automatically take me and my family in, without my having to battle for care in my moment of weakness and need. That is real freedom.

Conservative and libertarian thought tends to see freedom as a zero-sum game: the more the government does, the less free the citizenry is. But people without the material conditions to exercise meaningful choice lack an essential component of freedom. Accordingly, government action–to alleviate poverty, to provide public goods, to ensure a clean and safe environment, and to provide the framework for a well-functioning economy–can make people more, not less, free.

The populist bait-and-switch gets more obvious every day

Who could’ve predicted (in fact, a lot of people did) that Donald Trump’s alleged working-class populism would turn into bog-standard right-wingery once he took office? The first two big legislative pushes of this administration involve kicking millions of people off their health insurance and a budget proposal to gut programs that help vulnerable people and invest in the country’s future. What happened to infrastructure? What happened to renegotiating trade deals to bring back good-paying manufacturing jobs?

I don’t know if this is because Trump is too lazy and uninformed to push for a truly “populist” agenda or because he just doesn’t care, but it’s increasingly clear that he will betray at every turn the voters who helped put him over the top. Maybe things like the Muslim ban and the border wall are meant to be sops to the aggrieved white working class, while attacking PBS and the NEA can be sold as sticking it to the liberal elites. This provides the cover for funneling vast amounts of wealth to the already wealthy (and doing precisely zero to address the supposedly urgent problem of the national debt).

In practice, rather than some genuinely new ideological configuration, Trumpism is basically just combining the worst impulses of the existing American right: a pseudo-libertarian slash-and-burn approach to government programs meant to help the less well off and a draconian approach to immigration and foreign policy that panders to nativism and xenophobia. Good times.

The debate over the Democratic future

After a shellacking at the hands of someone like Donald Trump, it’s only natural that the Democrats (and liberal or left-leaning people in general) have spent a lot of time since the election wondering What Went Wrong? and What Do We Do Now?

Broadly speaking, two main approaches have emerged. One, associated with folks who supported Bernie Sanders during the primary, is that Hillary Clinton lost because she was associated with the failed centrist economic policies of “neoliberalism.” Consequently, people who should’ve voted Democratic went for Trump because of his populist-sounding appeals to economic discontent, particularly voters in the fabled Rust Belt. This is pithily summed up in the popular-on-Twitter slogan “Bernie would’ve won.”

The corresponding prescription is that Dems need to double down on Sanders-style left-wing populism with policies that appeal to the working class across lines of race and ethnicity and blunt the appeal of Trump’s phony populism.

Another school of thought focuses more on Trump’s racial appeal and argues that Clinton lost because many (most?) of the people who voted for Trump were racist. They liked his screeds against Mexicans and Muslims and supported him because of his promises to crack down on refugees and illegal immigrants. Trump’s nativism and ethno-nationalism were, on this view, a feature, not a bug for many of his voters. To the extent that Trump is a “populist,” it’s a distinctly race- and identity-based populism, similar to movements on the resurgent European far right.

Prescriptively, this second school of thought tends to emphasize the importance of the Obama coalition to future Democratic success. Because Trump’s populism is centered around white grievance, Democrats can’t hope to win on that ground without compromising their core values. Rather, they need to reaffirm their appeal to young people, socially liberal professionals, racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community, and other parts of the coalition which helped propel America’s first black president to the White House. The is essentially a variation on the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis.

Thus the debate is often reduced to an argument between “economic populism” and “identity politics.” But there are a number of complicating factors. For instance, how important were FBI director James Comey’s comments or Russian hacking (and possible collusion with the Trump campaign) to the election’s outcome? Was Hillary Clinton merely a bad campaigner with some ethical baggage, but whose message was fundamentally sound? Should Democrats take a stance of unbridled opposition to Trump and all his works, or are there areas of potential compromise, like infrastructure spending? To what extent can or should Democrats reach out to moderates and disaffected conservatives to create a popular front of resistance to Trump’s breaches of political norms and constitutional values?

What is perhaps least surprising is that, despite all the hand-wringing, navel gazing, and chin-stroking, people have largely ended up reaffirming views they already held before the election. People who liked Bernie Sanders think the Dems need to be more of a Bernie Sanders-type party. People who liked Hillary Clinton think that the mainstream liberalism of Clinton (and Obama) remains the best approach. Centrist Democrats (there are still a few) think the Obama era resulted in liberal overreach and that the party needs to move back toward the center.

It’s worth noting that there are reasons for being suspicious of both the main positions, at least if you take them as silver-bullet solutions to what ails the Democrats. A couple of examples: this article splashes some cold water on the demographic argument for an “emerging Democratic majority,” while this one marshals evidence that left-wing populism isn’t necessarily a straightforward answer to the right-wing version.

A lot of the debate, however, comes across, to me anyway, as somewhat academic. Almost indisputably, the Democrats are both more ideologically homogeneous and more left-wing across the board than they were the last time they were the opposition party. During the Bush years, Democrats were still a rather diverse mix of centrists and populists, social liberals and social conservatives/moderates, and foreign policy hawks and doves, and it’s not hard to find examples where Dems crossed the aisle to support Bush’s policies.

By contrast, the Democratic Party of today is more consistently liberal than, arguably, at any point in modern history. For instance, it has embraced not only full equality for gay people, but transgender rights–something that would’ve been virtually unthinkable ten years ago. Similarly, economic centrism–budget cutting, deregulation, etc.–has been, if not exiled from the party, at least rendered much less respectable. Economic ideas once relegated to the lefty fringes–like single-payer health care and a universal basic income–have enjoyed a resurgence of interest. Sanders and fellow populist firebrand Elizabeth Warren are two of the most visible leaders of the Senate Democrats.

Moreover, resisting the Trumpian GOP’s depredations on the safety net and the constitutional order has, so far, rendered some of this moot. Virtually all Democrats agree on the things they oppose: repealing the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, a punitive and discriminatory ban on people entering the country, gutting the regulatory state and administrative agencies, “building the wall,” attacks on the press, mollycoddling white nationalists and other “deplorables,” etc. etc.

This being the case, Ed Kilgore may be right that, at least going into the 2018 midterms, the Dems’ best bet is accentuating the negative. Come 2020, they’ll have to come up with an appealing positive message (and candidate!) that can speak to Americans’ hopes and offer a vision of a better country. But I’m not persuaded that this will require some grand ideological decision for one side or the other of the post-election debate. The Democratic party is probably not going to become a socialist-workers party, but it has become (and will likely to continue to become) more economically populist than it was over the last several decades. The economy isn’t working for large swaths of people, and Democrats need to come up with policies that speak to that. The party is also likely going to continue to be a more socially liberal party–one that champions the inclusive vision of American nationhood that was, in my opinion, one of the most appealing parts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign message. Getting the mix right enough to win elections and make positive change is more a matter of pragmatic politics than high principle. (And that’s all assuming the Republic is still standing four years from now.)

Jesus and Rome

Were Jesus and the early Christian movement foes of the Roman Empire? This common claim is critically examined by biblical scholar Christopher Bryan in his thought-provoking book Render to Caesar. He takes issue with those who regard Jesus as primarily concerned with opposing Rome in the name of “home rule” for Israel. Bryan examines the OT and the inter-testamental background, the gospels, the letters of Paul, and other NT writings (as well as extra-biblical sources) in making his case. There’s scant evidence, he says, that Jesus regarded Rome as illegitimate as such, and significant evidence to suggest that he recognized its authority–within limits. (The same goes for Paul and other NT writers.)

Bryan contends that Jesus and the early Christian movement stood broadly within the biblical prophetic tradition, which regards earthly powers as permitted by God for the purpose of ensuring peace and justice. The powers are legitimate insofar as they seek to fulfill their God-ordained purpose, but are subject to vigorous critique (and divine judgment) when they don’t. Pagan empires are not bad per se, and the biblical tradition can in fact be quite positive about them (as in the case of Cyrus). Jesus and the early Christians certainly believed the claims of God transcended those of Rome, but that doesn’t mean they rejected the claims of Rome within proper limits.

I confess I’ve never been persuaded by the “Jesus as dedicated enemy of Rome” interpretation. There just seems to be too little evidence in the gospels to support the idea that this was the primary purpose of his ministry. Obviously Bryan’s book isn’t the last word on these issues, but it makes a persuasive (and highly readable) case.

Final election thoughts

It’s election day, and I’m under a self-imposed media blackout. I just can’t spend the whole day on edge, nervously refreshing 538 or the New York Times website. I know I’m not alone in experiencing an unusual amount of election-related anxiety this year.

The ways in which this has been a crazy year are too well-known and numerous to list. But for me, what it all comes down to is the struggle between a vision of America as a pluralistic liberal democracy versus America as a predominately white, quasi-authoritarian state.

Donald Trump’s rhetorical assaults on ethnic and religious minorities, his casual misogyny, his disregard for pillars of a free society like the separation of powers and an independent press, his courting of overt racists, and his followers’ flirtation with political violence make him, unquestionably, the most dangerous presidential candidate in my lifetime. This isn’t about liberalism vs. conservatism, as we normally think of our political conflicts; it’s about national identity and the nature of the American regime.

Hillary Clinton, for all her well-canvassed flaws, is the de facto head of a coalition animated by a pluralistic view of America based on civic equality and a more tolerant, liberal view of national identity. Whether she’ll be in a position to advance her more ambitious social-democratic proposals is, to my mind, secondary to the urgent task of repudiating Trump’s white-nationalist, bargain-basement authoritarian movement. The fact that this movement has been aligned with a toxic, tribalist version of Christianity only adds to the urgency.

Even assuming the Democrats do well today (as the polls suggest), the fact that a large part of the electorate rejects social pluralism and civic equality is likely to roil our politics for years to come. And I can’t shake the feeling that it’s going to get a lot uglier before it gets better.

Why I’m for Hillary

In a couple of posts I’ve tried to explain why I’m not #feelingthebern, at least not to the extent that some of my friends and online acquaintances are. So does that make me a Hillary Clinton supporter only by default? Or is there a positive case to be made for the former first lady, senator and secretary of state?

Yes, I think there is, and for me it boils down to four things:

(1) She’s experienced, smart and realistic. Clinton is arguably more prepared to be president than anyone else in the country (except, that is, for the current president). She has a wide range of experience at the highest levels of government. Her mastery of issues and policy is unmatched by anyone running in either party. And she has a tough-minded and realistic understanding of what a president can accomplish in our current polarized environment.

(2) She’s liberal (enough). Though Clinton has supported some policies that liberals dislike, the overall arc of her career shows her to be a mainstream liberal Democrat. Yes, she’s a moderate in some respects, but contrary to what Bernie Sanders says, it is possible to be a moderate progressive. Though I don’t agree with her on everything, I’m closer to Clinton ideologically than I am to Sanders.

(3) She’s a woman. This matters, both substantively and symbolically. Issues affecting women would probably be more central to a Clinton presidency, and electing a woman as president of the United States would be a major feminist victory in itself. I want my daughter (and my son for that matter) to see that a woman can hold the highest office in the land.

(4) She can win. Some recent polls notwithstanding, I’m still convinced that Hillary has a better shot than Bernie at keeping the White House out of Republican hands. Clinton’s performance in front of the House committee investigating the Benghazi pseudo-scandal is just one of many examples of her unflappability in the face of nasty attacks. Bernie, by contrast, is still an unknown quantity in a really tough election fight. This isn’t dispositive for me, but it’s definitely a consideration.

Clinton has been fairly criticized for being too close to big business in general and Wall Street in particular, for being too hawkish on foreign policy and for some questionable decisions that create at least the appearance of ethical shadiness. These things worry me.

But there are no perfect choices in politics. Who you prefer will depend a lot on how much weight you give to particular strengths and weaknesses. For me, Clinton’s experience and pragmatism outweigh Bernie’s zeal and idealism. Many of my fellow Democratic voters have decided otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree here.

And like I said before, I’ll happily pull the lever for Bernie in November if he manages an upset. But this April, when the Maryland primary rolls around, I’ll be ready for Hillary.

(I’ll try to post on something non-political soon–I promise! :))

Does the Democratic Party need to exorcise the specter of socialism?

Democrats should be wary of embracing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism, argues Princeton sociologist Paul Starr.* “Socialism” isn’t just another term for New Deal liberalism, he says, but a distinctive political and ideological outlook that is at odds both with the liberal tradition and economic and political reality.

Sanders’ own political journey recapitulates the evolution of socialism itself: communal living on an Israeli kibbutz, touting the state socialism of Eugene Debs, affiliations with the Socialist Workers Party, and now advocating a program of extensive redistribution and regulation as a nominal Democrat.

Starr argues, however, that Sanders’ proposals, such as his tax and health plans, are outside of the mainstream even when compared with the European social democracies he upholds as models. For instance, Scandinavian governments have largely made peace with capitalism, financing generous welfare states with wealth produced by a relatively low-regulation market economy. (This point has also been made by libertarian writer Will Wilkinson.) But Sanders doesn’t talk as though he recognizes any external constraints on the feasibility of his plans–other than those that stem from the greed of the rich or the venality of establishment politicians.

Sanders’ causal attitude toward the real-world obstacles to implementing his policies has caused considerable consternation among some high-profile left-of-center economists and policy writers. But it reflects the moral fervor that animates his campaign. That is, Sanders’ socialism is not first and foremost an economic plan to be evaluated according to the canons of technocratic rationality; it’s a moral vision based on the value of economic equality. The revolution trumps (pardon the expression) the petty bean-counting of wonks.

But this single-minded focus on equality distinguishes socialism (democratic or otherwise) from liberalism, according to Starr:

At its core, liberalism has a concern for liberty. While liberals have expanded public programs, they also have sought to strengthen rights that limit arbitrary power, both governmental and private. Liberals do not sanctify the free market, but they care about preserving the incentives that stimulate innovation and investment and make possible a flourishing economy.

While I think Starr may overstate his case a bit here (a passion for equality is not necessarily at odds with a commitment to liberty), Sanders does seem to operate on a different set of assumptions than mainstream liberals. Do current business practices require stronger oversight are are they fundamentally illegitimate? Is there any limit, in principle, to the scope of authority the government should have to manage economic outcomes? Can capitalism be harnessed for more equitable growth, or is it essentially immoral? This is an long-running debate between liberals and socialists, reformers and radicals.

My own inclinations are toward the incremental progress and messy compromises of reformist liberalism. Pure socialism, in any of its forms, has little appeal to me, and I’m a moderate by both temperament and conviction. I also share the concerns about the feasibility of Sanders’ proposals, not to mention his appeal to a chimerical “political revolution.” (There’s also his evident lack of interest in foreign affairs and other aspects of the actual job of being president.)

But at the same time, liberals should listen to and benefit from more radical critiques and ideas. The New Deal wasn’t socialism (and neither was the Great Society or Obamacare), but progressive reform in the U.S. has often been influenced by more radical movements, with liberals in many cases co-opting (and moderating) ideas advocated by socialists and other more radical leftists. Abraham Lincoln, in some ways the pragmatic liberal reformer par excellence, was pushed in a more progressive direction in part by radicals in his own party as well as by activists like Frederick Douglass** (the course of the war had something to do with it too). Without this pressure, Lincoln might’ve pursued a restoration of the pre-war status quo instead of making the abolition of slavery a reality.

I don’t plan to vote for Sanders (unless he wins the nomination, which currently appears unlikely). But I’m glad he’s injected some more radical ideas into the race. The vast wealth disparities that characterize our new Gilded Age threaten values that everyone on the left side of the political spectrum holds dear. By putting the issue of inequality front and center, Sanders has done liberalism–and the country–an important service.
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*Starr is the author of Freedom’s Power, a very good book on the history and ideas of liberalism.
**Douglass also came to value Lincoln’s pragmatism, however. A good book on the Lincoln-Douglass relationship and their different approaches to political change is James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican.
 

Trump’s politics of fear vs. the pope’s politics of solidarity

There’s something fitting about Donald Trump’s feud with Pope Francis. The public personas of the two men could hardly be more different. Francis exudes openness, compassion and humility, while The Donald is all vulgarity, braggadocio and sneering contempt. But even more, Trump’s brand of politics represents much of what Francis has spent his pontificate opposing.

Trump’s appeal is based largely around fear: fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of Muslim immigrants, etc. And his proposed solutions are just as blunt and indiscriminate: build a wall, “bomb the shit out of them.”

Francis, by contrast, has spent much of his tenure outlining and exemplifying a politics of hope and solidarity. Solidarity with immigrants, with the poor and with the natural world. In Francis’s view, our well-being is inseparable from the well-being of our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman. This is the context in which to understand the pope’s comment that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Jesus crossed boundaries between people and broke down walls, so Francis is in good company here.

This isn’t to say that Christians can’t disagree in good faith about politics–including immigration policy. But when politics is rooted in fear and demonizing others, it should forfeit its claim to Christian support. All politicians traffic in fear to some extent of course, but Trump has elevated it to the animating principle of his campaign. His candidacy has been almost entirely bereft of any appeal to the better angels of our nature, something the Republican Party used to know a little about.

Prayer and action

God always and already does everything for all of God’s creatures (including us) that it is possible and appropriate for God to do. However, here we have to pay the price of saying that God is not one finite agent among and alongside others. Finite agents (such as you and I) can do things that God cannot do. We can make a peanut butter sandwich. Can God? We can take the peanut butter sandwich across the street and give it to a hungry person. God cannot. Here’s the principle: If it’s the sort of thing that you and I can do, then we’re responsible for doing it. (Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, p. 130)

“We do not know how to pray as we ought,” said Paul, which is why “the Spirit aids us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26). Asking God to do things that we are readily capable of doing is a good example of “not knowing how to pray as we ought.” God is always doing for us everything that it is possible for God to do for us, such as love us. Praying for God’s love, then, makes perfect sense, as long as we understand that asking for it is a condition of our receiving it, not of God’s offering it. Love is a strange kind of gift–it has to be wanted to be received.

Another way to not know how to pray is to fail to see the connection between praying and doing justice. A life of prayer divorced from a life committed to working for justice for the neighbor, a life spent in doing what the rabbis called “deeds of loving-kindness,” is inauthentic. One major purpose of prayer is to make us more open to God’s intent to convey blessing and well-being to God’s creatures. A life of prayer requires accompaniment by a life of usefulness to the neighbor. A life of usefulness to the neighbor is a life or prayer, some moments of which we spend on our knees. (ibid., pp. 293-4)

These quotes provide what I think is a helpful way of looking at the relation between prayer and action–something that has come under scrutiny in the wake of the latest horrific mass shooting. Prayer isn’t magic and God doesn’t do for us things that we are responsible for doing ourselves (like establishing a just society). Politicians who call for prayer but not action are not “praying as they ought.”

But at the same time, prayer is, as many seekers of justice attest, a powerful fount of committed activism. In Williamson’s terms, prayer is a channel through which God’s love and will for creaturely well-being flows into the world. True prayer leads not to resignation in the face of preventable evil, but to a life of service to the neighbor, which includes establishing justice in society.

The living Constitution

Garrett Epps’ American Epic: Reading the U. S. Constitution is a fascinating, informative, lucid, provocative, and not infrequently humorous tour through the text of the Constitution, including all twenty-seven amendments. Epps, a lawyer, professor, and correspondent for the Atlantic, isn’t uncritically reverent toward the text–he recognizes that it can be confusing, opaque, and occasionally self-contradictory, as well as containing ideas that are “repulsive.” But neither is he out to debunk it as a tool of anti-democratic elites. The Constitution binds us together as a people, and over its history it has–albeit often fitfully–expanded the reach of democratic self-government and equality before the law.

Epps takes issue with those who treat the Constitution almost as an infallible oracle that provides a single answer to every legal or political question, frequently comparing them to biblical fundamentalists. He approaches it in a more “literary” fashion, seeing the language as producing a surplus of meaning beyond what the original framers may have intended (even assuming we could always figure out what that was, which we can’t). He proposes that different kinds of reading–“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”–yield different meanings, none of which can lay claim to being the definitive meaning.

This doesn’t mean that Epps dispenses with legal analysis. He moves meticulously, passage by passage, teasing out possible meanings, some more plausible than others. His close reading of the text often calls into question what “everybody knows” it means, and he recognizes that different and opposed readings (of, say, the Second Amendment) can lay claim to plausibility. Where we come down will, often as not, depend on prior political and philosophical assumptions. “As a whole,” he notes, “its composition spanning two centuries, the Constitution forges a complex language, its words drawing meaning from their interrelation and the gloss of new uses.”

Actually moving through the Constitution, warts and all, and reflecting on the circumstances under which its various parts were composed, probably provides the best argument for seeing it as a “living” document that takes on new meanings in different historical circumstances. It’s not unlike how, to borrow Epps’ frequent comparison, actually reading the Bible closely often calls into question simplistic theories of inspiration or “inerrancy.” Epps’ book is an eye-opening guide to a text that “so many revere and so many fewer have read.”