Health Care Today, Democracy Tomorrow
The latest Gallup poll suggests that just 4 in 10 Americans want the current health care reform bill passed. Support for reform is, as everyone knows, waning. Still, Paul Krugman is right: Democrats need to do the right thing and pass the bill.
Democracy does not mean that the ruling class ought to base its decisions on popular opinion (as is commonly supposed): democracy means popular rule. For better or worse, America is a republic, not a democracy. And, while I do think we need to have the democracy conversation, right now America is having (or trying to have) the health care conversation.
Blending the two conversations together usually results in circular reasoning. Many Republicans, for example, argue that reform is foolish because it is unpopular and unpopular because it is foolish. Here is David Brooks on how the Democrats are “out of touch”:
Instead of building trust in government, the Democrats have magnified distrust. The country already believed Washington is out of touch with its core concerns. So while most families were concerned about jobs, Democrats in Washington spent nine months arguing about health care. The country was already tired of self-serving back-room deals, so the Democrats negotiated a series of dirty deals with the pharmaceutical industry, the unions and certain senators. Americans already felt Washington doesn’t understand their fears and insecurities. So at the moment when economic insecurity was at its peak, the Democrats in Washington added another layer of insecurity by threatening to change everything at once.
Americans, in short, know best: that is, Americans know what Brooks knows. Notice that Brooks provides no evidence whatsoever for his assertions. The whole thing depends on readers simply nodding along as phrases like “the country was already tired of self-serving back-room deals” and “Washington doesn’t understand their fears and insecurities” breeze by. Instead of providing evidence, Brooks assumes that the unpopularity of reform is enough to discredit it, and, conversely, that reform is unwise because it is unpopular.
In the liberal camp, Jonathan Chait likewise simply assumes what he cannot prove (what no one could, in fact, prove). Chait “knows” that liberalism is not to blame for Obama’s political difficulties, so he chalks them up to high unemployment instead. Chait cites as “evidence” the findings of political scientists that midterm elections and high unemployment “exert a huge pull” on voter behavior. Yet, is it not also feasible that Obama’s decision-making has itself exerted a “huge pull” on voters? Brooks’ failure to demonstrate this claim does not necessarily render it untrue; nor does accepting one explanation require that we reject the other. Chait’s case therefore rests on demonstrating that high unemployment is not merely a factor, but the deciding factor in the current public mood. This he does not do; nor could he.
Man does not live by facts alone. Facts matter, yes; but so do the values-laden narratives by which we manipulate them. (Which is, incidentally, why, in a separate controversy, Douthat shifted the metric for economic growth following Chait’s correct observation that Manzi had not adequately demonstrated a correlation between social cohesion and innovation.)
To reiterate Krugman’s point, Democrats should pass health care reform because it is the right thing to do. Let’s save the democracy conversation for another day — as in, tomorrow.