When Progressives Become Wingnuts

by Brien Jackson

The amount of stupid in our discourse, both mainstream and on the interwebs, has made it increasingly hard to care enough about much of anything to put the effort into writing about it, but this post from Digby deserves to be taken apart and hung around the neck of anyone who thinks it’s worth agreeing with, for a variety of reasons. It’s a very good summary of what I think deserves to be referred to as the “progressive wingnut” mindset, which is essentially to look at politics and progressive policy opinions in the same way the wingnuts look at things. I’ve been arguing for some time that this particular element of the liberal blogosphere operates this way, and now Digby is admitting it for us.

I may not be competent to weigh the importance of the various wonkish details of the health care reform package being debated in the Senate, but I’m pretty comfortable talking about this.

Ezra believes that if the votes aren’t there for a decent public option then the horse trading should be around getting something good in return for giving up the public option rather than negotiating the terms of the public option. That would make sense if the public option were just another feature of the health care bill. But it is not. It is the central demand of the liberal base of the Democratic Party in this rube goldberg health care plan and has long since gone way beyond a policy to become a symbol.

Perhaps that is wrong on policy grounds. People will argue about that forever. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is no longer a matter of policy but rather a matter of political power. And to that extent it cannot be “bargained away” for something like better subsidies, even if it made sense. “Bargaining away” the Public Option is also the bargaining away of liberal influence and strength.

First of all, it’s nice of Digby to admit that the various kvetching over the public option has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with narrow tribalism. As plenty of people have pointed out at various junctures, making your camp on the public option makes pretty much no sense policy wise, as even the strongest versions proposed by Congress were likely to matter very little in the grand scheme of things. But in the sense that you’re only concerned about extracting a “win” for your tribe, it doesn’t really matter where you pick your battle. Indeed, the more useless the fight the better.

Moreover, I’ll just point out again that Digby and those who agree with her are living in a dream world fighting windmills. They imagine that they’re somehow in some sort of negotiation they can win and force conservadems to swallow, but, well, they’re not. Pursuing this sort of strategy is sort of like being in a hostage situation where the hostage taker is threatening to kill all of the hostages unless he gets X. Refusing to negotiate with him and telling him he’s just going to have to kill the hostages might be a good strategy in the abstract, but it’s definitely not a good strategy in the event that; a) you don’t want the hostages to die, b) the hostage taker has no qualms whatsoever about killing them. In that scenario, you’re just going to get the hostages killed. And that’s basically what you have in Congress; progressive members want to pass some sort of healthcare reform, whereas conservadems are really ambivalent to it. They might let something called “healthcare reform” out of the Senate, but only if they get to kill the things they don’t like. Otherwise, they’re perfectly fine killing the whole bill. There’s no way to negotiate with them on that, because they have no compunction whatsoever about killing the final bill. It’s unfortunate that that’s the way the system works, but it is what it is, at least for now.

Ezra has another rejoinder on the policy front, to which I’ll just emphasize two points. First of all, the bill on the table without the public option would still greatly expand healthcare coverage in the United States to millions of poor people. Indeed, it will sae thousands of lives. There’s nothing shameful about supporting such a bill, and beyond that, it’s downright reprehensible for a “progressive” to even suggest that such a bill ought to be defeated in the name of “liberal influence.” That’s not a committment to social justice, that’s a committment to your own pissing matches and resentments. Secondly, if nothing else passing the bill will reverse the course of reform’s legislative history. As Ezra hints at, to this point everytime someone tries to do anything remotely like universal coverage, the bill loses, the issue goes away for a generation, and when it resurfaces the proposals are much narrower and less progressive. Anyone arguing that killing this bill will lead to a more progressive bill in the future are being willfullly obtuse.

Lastly, this made me chuckle (and then bang my head into my keyboard):

The “Public Option” is a symbol of liberal power, and losing it will be a serious loss. However, expecting that Democrats would vote against a final health care bill because it didn’t have one was always dicey in my view. If, in the end this bill doesn’t have a public option, I have little doubt that most pols are going to make a very serious gut check, as Bowers does, and ask themselves whether or not the public loss of this liberal power is worth tanking health care reform over. I don’t know how that will come out.

What’s really kept this symbol of liberal power alive is public opinion, in my view, rather than an institutional belief in the serious intention among progressives to tank the bill. It’s the people who have the liberals’ back on this one and that actually scares politicians. They aren’t scared that liberal pols are going to vote against health care reform. They’re scared of voters.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Indeed, public opinion tracks pretty closely to the opinions of sell-out squishes like Ezra and myself; in isolation, the public option is very popular, but as a larger part of the healthcare reform debate people are overwhelmingly ambivalent about it. But hey, since when do wingnuts need to be attached to reality when making claims that everyone agrees with them? That’s what they do after all.