It’s bound to happen, any time progressives have the audacity to demand brave leadership from a Democratic Party that asks for our money, our votes and our volunteer labor. The cry goes up from the self-proclaimed level heads of corporate media: You impractical, self-defeating lefties! Stop whining and let the adults run things! And so, as the leadership debacle that was health reform reaches its climax, it’s little surprise that those of us who won’t stop fighting for true reform are once again told to shut up.
Time’s Joe Klein is perhaps the most apoplectic about the "idiocy" of the "left-wing blogosphere." Klein’s selective reading leads him to reduce progressive criticism of the Senate health bill to its lack of a public option, which he dismisses as a "tidbit" in meaningful reform policy. Klein is of course beating up on an ahistorical straw man. What most progressive reformers called for was single-payer; we were adult enough to accept and fight for the compromise Obama proposed — that "relatively minor provision called the public option."
But Klein’s straw man allows him to set up a familiar, false equivalency between left and right, positioning those level-headed "moderates" as the good folks holding our polity together. He writes, with a peevish tone fit for the lefty blogosphere he’s conjured:
Hilariously, as we stagger from one awful decade into the next, there has been a coagulation of these extremes — a united front against the turgid ceremonies of legislative democracy, like compromise, and disdain for the politician most responsible for nudging our snarled checks and balances toward action, Barack Obama.
Huh? When did "legislative democracy" become defined by a handful of small-state Senators holding the majority hostage? When did "action" become caving in to the demands of a single senator who plainly neither understood nor cared about the actual policy debate?
Meanwhile, over at the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg lectures with the gravitas of 1856 philosophy. Hertzberg invokes John Ruskin’s "pathetic fallacy" (yeah, I know, it’s the New Yorker) to argue that progressives have no right to criticize Obama for the reform process’ failures; blame instead lies with the inanimate, apparently ungovernable government.
The American government has its human aspects–it is staffed by human beings, mostly–but its atomized, at-odds-with-itself legislative structure (House and Senate, each with its arcane rules, its semi-feudal committee chairs, and its independently elected members, none of whom are accountable or fully responsible for outcomes) makes it more like an inanimate object. In our sclerotic lawmaking process, it is not enough that the President, a majority of both Houses of Congress, and a majority of the voters at the last election favor extending health care to all citizens.
The left-wing critics are right about the conspicuous flaws of the pending health-care reform–its lack of even a weak "public option," its too meagre subsidies, its windfalls for Big Pharma, its capitulation on abortion coverage, its reliance on private insurance. And there are surely senators and representatives whose motives are base or, broadly speaking, corrupt. But it is nonsense to attribute the less than fully satisfactory result to the alleged perfidy of the President or "the Democrats."
You see, lefties? You can’t hold your leaders accountable, because it’s the nameless, faceless "system" that’s to blame. Which is pretty much the same street-corner logic that leads millions of people to opt out of democracy altogether. Either the presidency matters or it doesn’t. Either our leaders are accountable for the policies they create or they are not. And if they are not, let’s drop the conceit of democracy and take the reform debate from there.
What’s interesting is that neither Klein nor Hertzberg nor most of those who shout down Obama’s progressive critics refute the substance of the criticism. The argument, it seems, is merely that we can expect no better from our government. As Hertzberg writes,
None of these people, from Obama on down the wonk scale, deceive themselves that the Senate bill, which now must be merged with its (marginally stronger) House equivalent, comes within hailing distance of perfection. All of them recognize that the final bill, in the now overwhelmingly likely event that it surmounts the remaining hurdles, will be flawed and messy. All of them also understand that, compared with the status quo–and the status quo, not perfection or anything like it, is the alternative–it will constitute a moral and material advance of historic proportions.
I’m sorry, but this is just nonsense. Corporate special interests and the Democratic politicos they underwrite would like us to accept this false choice between fake reform and the status quo. But there are many, many more choices — including both the public option compromise Obama proposed and the Medicare-expansion compromise the Senate hammered out. Our leaders — the same ones who will once again ask for our money, our votes and our volunteer labor next election cycle — simply were not prepared to fight for those choices.
There have been many irrational, uncooperative participants in the health care debate: The industries that have profited immensely from the broken status quo, the just-say-no Republicans and the handful of conservative Democrats who have enlarged themselves by standing in the way of real reform, to name a few. The left, on the other hand, has embraced compromise after compromise — and the result is we’ve all squandered a rare political opportunity to make sweeping changes rather than tinker at the margins. Forgive me if I can’t fix my mouth to call that historic. But I’m just an idiotic left-wing blogger, so what do I know.