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Why is there so much animosity between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals? Part of the answer is that many of them have been indoctrinated; they have been taught allegiance to one side over another and never thought to question it. But for many others on both sides, party allegiance is more ideological than cultural. So the original question needs to be rephrased: for these ideological “warriors,” what exactly fuels all of the anger and venom in policy debates about economics, taxes, minimum wage, infrastructure, unions, environment/climate change, immigration, voting rights, gun control, criminal justice, and moral/social issues (abortion, race relations, religion in schools, LGBTQ rights, etc.)?
Underlying all of this bitter polarization and emotional partisanship are two profoundly opposing views about government’s moral obligations to the most vulnerable and historically oppressed members of society. While the left regards government as a force for good, a powerful institution that should be used primarily to help improve such people’s lives and thereby expand their liberty, the right regards government as a necessary evil, an inherently despotic, liberty-diminishing institution that should be used only for the more minimal purposes of maintaining order and security.
What motivates this theoretical difference is a widespread psychological difference. While “leftists” are more likely to trust state authority and acknowledge our mutual dependence on each other, “right-wingers” are more likely to distrust state authority and glorify rugged individualism. While the left views society as more “molecular,” the right views it as more “atomistic.” For Hillary and her fellow liberals, it takes a village; for conservatives, it takes just grit and gumption. One side is all about personal responsibility (in theory); the other is much more about social responsibility (in theory and practice).
At bottom, the right believes in the primacy of the individual over the collective. And this belief itself rests on three deeper beliefs: (a) equal and ample free will, (b) equal and ample opportunity, and (c) the “Just World Hypothesis.” (a) means that it is entirely up to each of us at critical junctures which choices we make, (b) means that every individual has the (God-given) potential to make all the right choices and realize his or her full potential, and (c) means that people generally – or even always – get more or less what they deserve.
Putting (a) – (c) together, you are what you make of yourself. If you’re successful, congratulations! You did build that, contrary to President Obama. If not – if you find yourself poor, in jail, a drug addict, an alcoholic, mentally ill, or disabled – well, you have only yourself to blame. So don’t start asking the taxpayers for any assistance. You made your bed; now you lie in it. Remember Mitt Romney’s 47%?
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) recently took Romney’s 47% remark to an absurd new level by blaming all unhealthy people for their misfortune. On May 1, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Brooks stated that the American Health Care Act (“Trumpcare”), which passed the House on May 4, “will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher healthcare costs to contribute more to the insurance pool that helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy” (emphasis added).
Republicans’ penchant for blaming the victim is as misguided as it is uncharitable. Many people are mostly, if not entirely, blameless for the burdens that dragged them down: poverty, poor nutrition in childhood, physical or sexual abuse, weak education, indoctrination, dangerous neighborhoods, youthful mistakes, freak accidents, physical disabilities, neurological defects, and mental illness.
Even those who are supposedly responsible – and therefore blameworthy – for their bad behavior have much less free will than we normally think. All of our behavior emanates from our personalities and our circumstances, and both of these are ultimately the result of pure luck, factors that are ultimately outside our control: genes, upbringing, and environment. Yes, for mostly utilitarian (incentivization) reasons, we should be blamed for our wrongdoing (and praised for our accomplishments). But we need always to keep in mind that all of our actions, omissions, efforts, and failures are still the products of our personalities and circumstances, which are – again – ultimately outside our control.
This insight – this realization about just how little control we have over our lives, over who we started out as and who we became – should encourage greater understanding and empathy for the many who suffer, struggle, and fail. There but for the grace of God – or luck – go I.
It should also temper our awe of the far fewer who “make it big,” whether financially, creatively, or athletically. These so-called “self-made men” are really not self-made at all. They always enjoy certain lucky advantages – for example, raw talent, great intelligence, second (and third and fourth) chances, or family wealth and power – all of which they passively inherited rather than earned through hard work.
Even the few who supposedly did make it all on their own – the legendary Horatio Alger/rags-to-riches stories – still needed plenty of externally bestowed advantages along the way: parents to nurture them for the first ten to twenty years, the essentials for survival (food, clothing, and shelter), many opportunities to learn and excel, many mistakes to be forgiven and overlooked, and an absence of deadly encounters (such as war, leukemia, a car accident, or a stray bullet).
Fairness and compassion alone dictate that society help to compensate for at least much of the bad luck that so many of its members suffer. And the societal institution that is best-equipped to provide this compensation is the government that society has created and maintained to promote its core values. Because government is the most powerful institution in a constitutional democracy, it needs to step in when the larger community cannot, or at least will not, step up. Taxpayers’ money should indeed be used to invest in the poor, to put them in a position where they have a fair opportunity to work, compete, grow, flourish, and thereby – eventually – give back to society.
The only real alternative to this position is Social Darwinism, the societal analogue of the natural world’s survival of the fittest, which is euphemistically known as libertarianism and free-market capitalism. The idea behind these theories is that ruthless, unfettered competition in the private sector leads to much better results for society as a whole than heavy-handed, centralized control by a bloated, inefficient, and ignorant bureaucracy. Hence Ronald Reagan’s famous line from his first Inaugural Address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And Grover Norquist’s suffocating dream of a government shrunk so small that it “can be drowned in a bathtub.”
The latest instance of this anti-government ideology is the Republicans’ recent attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. The House Freedom Caucus initially helped to defeat Speaker Ryan’s initially proposed replacement not because it would lead to millions of people losing affordable insurance but for the very opposite reason: it still left enough of Obamacare intact to insure millions of others.
On May 4, just enough House Republicans – many of them gleefully – passed an even more draconian measure. At the same time that it gives high-income earners, healthcare insurers, and drug companies a $765 billion tax cut over the next decade, Trumpcare will likely leave 24 million more Americans without health insurance after a decade. It rolls back state-by-state expansions of Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans; allows states to roll back required coverage for “essential” services like maternity, emergency care, mental healthcare, and substance-abuse treatment; and effectively guts the most popular part of Obamacare, the provision prohibiting healthcare insurers from denying coverage for customers with pre-existing conditions, by enabling states to apply for waivers that would permit healthcare insurers to charge these customers much higher premiums.
The ideal scenario for both Republicans and their undeservedly plutocratic donor-friends (like the Koch Brothers) is that the government simply abandon healthcare altogether and leave it entirely up to the free market – doctors, patients, healthcare insurers, and healthcare agencies – to work it all out. But there are two major problems with this laissez-faire approach.
First, the rhetorical premise on which it is predicated – namely, that Obamacare is “socialized medicine” – is false. Despite eight years of relentless right-wing propaganda, Obamacare does not convert government into a healthcare provider, no less a morbid manager of death panels. Instead, it merely does what the federal government should have done a long time ago: impose new regulations on private healthcare providers and insurers and offer helpful subsidies to the states and many patients, all in an admirable effort to make healthcare both stronger and more affordable for many more people. (A single-payer national healthcare system – “Medicare for all” – would be preferable to Obamacare, but Obamacare is still far preferable to the healthcare system that preceded it.)
Second, what are we to do with the millions of people who, if Trumpcare passes the Senate, will lose access to affordable healthcare? The right’s answer is that their families, friends, neighbors, and donors should help them out. But what if they don’t – as they didn’t for tens of millions of people before Obamacare passed in 2010? However much they may deny it, the right’s answer to this question is quite simply: tough luck. Indeed, at a town hall meeting on April 19, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said that healthcare is not a “basic human right.”
The right tries to disguise this callousness with the claim that we just don’t have enough money, that government assistance promotes dependency, and that Obamacare was in a “death spiral.” But all of these canards are easily refuted. What’s more, putting aside the Republicans’ Big Lie about Obamacare being in a death-spiral, Obamacare would have been even stronger if corporate shill Marco Rubio hadn’t stealthily sabotaged the “risk corridors” in 2014. (See “Marco Rubio Quietly Undermines Affordable Care Act,” New York Times, Dec. 9, 2015.)
In the end, a right to life, which the Constitution grants to all of us, entails a right to the means necessary for life; to reject the latter is to reject the former. Or as Jimmy Kimmel more colorfully put it on May 1, “If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make.”
The right’s macho, hardhearted position that the government should just stand by and leave the poor to the mercy of a society that will generally fall short is morally wrong. And it is not just the left who vigorously oppose this kind of state-sponsored, Ayn-Rand-inspired bad Samaritanism. The Founding Fathers also opposed it in the Preamble to the Constitution when they declared one of its purposes to be to “promote the general Welfare.” Thomas Jefferson and the 39th Congress implicitly opposed it (respectively) in the Declaration of Independence and Fourteenth Amendment, both of which celebrate the inherent equality and dignity of all human beings, whatever their social status or utility. And for all the evangelicals out there, Jesus opposed it in Luke 10:25-37.
As usual, FDR said it best: “Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”