Monday, October 29, 2018

Between Healthcare and Fascism: Chaos

by Michael C. Dorf  (** New as of 10/31/2018: Updated with a Postscript)

A recent column by David Brooks takes Democratic candidates to task for focusing so much of their midterm election messaging on health care. It's easy to dismiss this column as just so much concern-trolling by Brooks, and in an important sense it is that. Brooks--self-appointed defender of the Republic from the evils of identity politics--thinks that the Democratic strategy will fail because Democrats can only appeal to particular identity groups one at a time and are thus missing out on an opportunity to appeal to disaffected Republicans.

That's not just wrong but actually backwards. To state the obvious, everyone--regardless of race, sex, religion, gender identity, or any other identity--needs health care. The emphasis on health care reflects Democratic efforts to broaden the party's reach by appealing to voters who may have identitarian reasons of their own (such as whiteness or Evangelical Christianity) for often favoring Republicans. It's a gamble that a meaningful fraction of voters who tolerate or even somewhat like Trump because of status anxiety care less about the psychic wage that Trump's brand of white nationalism pays them than they care about being able to see a doctor for that concerning lump. Brooks manages to miss this fact entirely.

Yet if the main point of the column as Brooks conceives it is wrong, en route to his misguided conclusion he makes an astute observation. He writes: "The Trumpian challenge is primarily a moral and cultural challenge. But the Democrats are mostly comfortable talking about how to use federal spending to extend benefits."

I think Brooks is right about both halves of that statement. The challenge is how to talk about the first half--the especially Trumpian awfulness of Trump--without sounding alarmist and thus alienating the people who are reachable on conventional Democratic grounds of using government to address social needs. Admittedly, the risk of sounding alarmist is smaller today than it was just a week ago. The Trump-inspired pipe bombs of Cesar Sayoc and the open Nazism of the murderous Robert Bowers (who apparently dislikes Trump for not going nearly far enough) have made clear that warnings of political violence are clear-eyed.

Still, as we have seen all too often in response to prior mass shootings--including other mass shootings that were also hate crimes--the relentless news cycle quickly displaces reform proposals and calls for "civility." Accordingly, although I regard the Trumpian threat to American democracy as genuinely existential, I recognize the challenge of making that point without seeming alarmist to a substantial fraction of my fellow citizens, including some who are not fully in the tank for Trump and Trumpism.

An anecdote illustrates the risk of coming across as alarmist.

I subscribe to a listserv of and for constitutional law professors. In pre-Trump-presidency days, most of the posts addressed issues of contemporary constitutional law, broadly understood. Because so much of constitutional law overlaps with politics, there was always a strong element of political content, but it was mostly political content in the form that it typically takes in constitutional law. Since Trump's election, however, more than half of the emails raise questions about just what sort of existential threat Trump poses to constitutional democracy in America. Like the law professoriate generally, the list skews liberal. Moreover, many of the conservatives on the list are never-Trumpers. Consequently, the small number of pro-Trump or pro-Trump-adjacent list members tend to be defensive, with the defensiveness sometimes turning into aggressiveness.

One list member has expressed his aggression by repeatedly doubting the sincerity of the most Trump-critical list members. The doubt takes the following form: You don't really think Trump is the threat you claim he is, because if you really thought he was a fascist you would be taking active steps to emigrate or go into hiding or self-censor; the fact that you're not doing any of that shows that your expressions of condemnation are mere self-serving virtue signaling.

This charge is unfair. One can think that Trump poses an existential threat to republican government but that the nature of the threat is of the sort that will take some time to fully materialize and metastasize, so that even if one thinks one eventually might need to emigrate, one might not want to start packing just yet. Moreover, the threat is unevenly distributed, so that one can think that one is not personally in peril, even as there is a threat to others.

Nonetheless, despite the unfairness of the (apparently) pro-Trump-adjacent listserv member's charge, I believe it reflects a quite widespread view among enough voters that Democrats need to win over in order to win elections that comparisons of Trump to Mussolini--even if accurate in the key respects in which the comparisons are made--may end up alienating the sorts of voters who don't have strong political views and thus are likely to see the comparisons as partisan name calling. People who look around and don't see that their lives have changed much at all for the worse under Trump may be turned off by what they see as overwrought comparisons.

Thus, there are tactical if not necessarily principled reasons for Democrats to run on health care and other issues--to act as though these are normal times. Is that a problem?

Maybe not. I support some form of government-guaranteed universal health insurance. Therefore, I'm not especially troubled by the idea that Democrats might win political office running on Medicare for All, even though I think there are other issues that ought to be treated as in some sense prior.

Still, I agree with Brooks when he says that Democrats are missing an opportunity. Trump really is a threat to liberal democracy, even if not the sort of threat that leads one to make immediate plans to emigrate. If (as Prof. Buchanan and I have each argued on this blog repeatedly), Trump's worst tendencies have been enabled by and are continuous with the goals of the Republican Party more broadly, then there are urgent reasons for all small-d democrats (and small-r republicans) to vote against Trump's enablers, regardless of their druthers on health care or any particular policy issue.

Nonetheless, as both a sound electoral strategy and for reasons of authenticity, Democrats would ideally find a way to talk about particular policy differences (e.g., by highlighting how Republicans are blatantly lying about pre-existing conditions) as well as the urgent threat to liberal democracy itself. Can we talk about the latter without alienating pocketbook-focused or health-care-focused voters?

In thinking about that question, I find myself intrigued by an extremely thoughtful review of various recent books on Trump, Trumpism, fascism, and authoritarianism, authored by my former colleague Michael Livingston. While acknowledging "that there are elements of Trump’s presidency that have uncomfortable echoes of fascism and that differentiate him from previous American leaders, including an intensely charismatic style of leadership, a celebration of masculine or pseudo- masculine values, and implicit identification of a racial or ethnic community rather than a community open to all American citizens," Livingston nonetheless thinks that most comparisons to the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany end up distracting us from the core issues.

What are those core issues? Livingston does not provide a comprehensive answer, but he gestures away from anything very America-centric. He sees Trump and Trumpism as local manifestations "of a broader trend embracing leaders from Berlusconi to Putin to Orban and countries as diverse as Germany, Turkey, and even Sweden." (And now Brazil.) If Trump is riding a global wave of illiberal ethno-nationalism, the way to combat it, Livingston says, is to emulate those countries that have been most resistant to the wave. His chief example is Macron in France. I might have added Canada as another example of a country that has thus far proved resistant to the ethno-nationalist virus.

That said, I am skeptical of Livingston's further claim that institutional structures explain the differences. Yes, there are plenty of rotten structures in American democracy, including pretty basic ones like the Senate, the Electoral College, and state legislative responsibility for drawing district lines and determining voter qualifications. And I applaud Livingston's proposal that insofar as those rotten features are not locked in, small-d democrats (including many capital-R Republicans like Livingston himself) should try to fix them. But both the countries that are succumbing to ethno-nationalism and the countries that have thus far resisted it appear to be diverse in their institutional structures as well as along other dimensions. We had an undemocratic Senate, Electoral College, and partisan gerrymandering long before Trump, while Hungary, Poland, Sweden, and Turkey have quite different government structures. Structural reform is a good idea, but it may not be enough.

The first time around it took a world war that cost tens of millions of lives to break the hold of Nazism and fascism. I certainly would not prescribe global war as the solution today, but if Livingston is right in his diagnosis of the problem (and I think he is), then his prescription of what are worthwhile but small-bore good government reforms seems inadequate to the task. I suspect that institutional structures matter, but so does political culture and, frankly, luck.

History is a product of great impersonal forces and unpredictable but path-dependent chaos. Archduke Ferdinand had multiple chances to avoid his fate in Sarajevo and thus possibly spare Europe the misery of two world wars. More farcically, were it not for the fact that Anthony Weiner (!) shared a computer with Huma Abedin, James Comey would have had no occasion to  reopen his investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, and Trump might well not be president.

Whether the global ethno-nationalist fever breaks before destroying liberal democracy is thus nearly impossible to predict. Under such circumstances, the best one can do is take calculated risks. Efforts to sink or at least slow Trumpism by accurately casting his adopted party as filled with heartless hypocrites and liars about health care (and other subjects) is such a calculated risk. Whether it will work is unclear, but the stakes could not be much clearer.

Postscript added 10/31/6:30: The listserv member to whom I referred above believes that I mischaracterized his emails to the list. You can read his complaint (in which he reveals his identity) here. I continue to believe that my characterization was accurate. In any event, I do not think it is worth engaging in a satellite debate over whether I accurately paraphrased what someone whom I did not even name posted on a listserv.


Joe said...

"But the Democrats are mostly comfortable talking about how to use federal spending to extend benefits."

Obama didn't just do that. But, then, we hear from others how he was stupid and naive about trying to reach everyone, thinking he can reach Republicans. Though in the end, he did on various things, if not those actually in Congress.

OTOH, you even had people like Orinn Hatch defending trans people. While Obama (and other Democrats actually) did not just speak about 'federal spending' or 'extended benefits,' but principles like fairness and respect and so forth. And, other "Democrats" do that now. They are not just talking about spending and benefits.

Why? Well, part of it is that many of them are quite comfortable about talking about other things. Brooks is tiresome.

former student said...

As someone who views Trump's racism as an existential threat and also views the response typified by the Washington Post as an existential threat, I offer the following thoughts to Democrats of good faith:

1. We need to recognize that American workers want to work (or stay home and raise families, as the case may be) and want that work to be viewed as valuable. A focus on healthcare does not do this, and the proposals to fund it through another regressive flat tax on workers actually undercuts it. (There is a separate book to be written on the horrors of the US tax system, with its 401k deductions, deductions for "charitable" organizations and mortgage interest, regressive SS tax, etc.)

2. As part of (1), we need to recognize that trade deals need to be re-worked in order to raise wages, hours, pollution controls, and conditions globally and not undercut American labor and environmental protections. We need to recognize that trade is (at least to a certain extent) a zero sum game, and the cost of these protections is higher cost goods, and that's ok. Wealth redistribution is not supposed to be free or only a matter of redistributing from doing-ok workers to the marginalized poor and minorities.

3. As part of (1) and (2), stop accusing people who want enforcement of immigration laws of being racist, and stop saying that undocumented workers are doing jobs "that Americans won't do." Americans won't do farmworker jobs in the US because the wages, hours, and conditions (including safety and ergonomics) are unacceptable. If ag business needs workers and can't get enough, they'll have to raise wages, hours, and conditions until they can attract them. If broccoli costs more, so be it -- this isn't a win-win world with only win-win solutions, and programs that benefit workers cost consumers. I have nothing against more legal immigration, and quite a bit in favor of it, so I would think that documenting undocumented farmworkers, encouraging them to unionize, and applying federal safety standards and regs would be a great first start here and attractive to traditional liberals. But undercutting American labor standards through illegal labor markets and labeling the critics "racist" tends to make the critics more willing, through exhaustion, to accept the label and behave accordingly. This is perhaps the biggest reason we are where we are.

To sum:

- No to free trade/yes to fair trade (and acknowledge that USMCA is a huge improvement on NAFTA)
- Enforcement of immigration laws (perhaps through the documentation of workers) and expansion of labor/OSHA protections to ag and domestic work
- Tax reforms to restore a progressive tax structure instead of a payroll tax/401k/charitable/mortgage interest deduction structure that comes down hardest on people in the $60 - $120k range and small employers, which is the range that you can get to realistically without a college degree.

Shag from Brookline said...

This, from the anecdote:


One list member has expressed his aggression by repeatedly doubting the sincerity of the most Trump-critical list members. The doubt takes the following form: You don't really think Trump is the threat you claim he is, because if you really thought he was a fascist you would be taking active steps to emigrate or go into hiding or self-censor; the fact that you're not doing any of that shows that your expressions of condemnation are mere self-serving virtue signaling.


sounds like sounds/bumperstickers of the past: "America, Love It Or Leave It."

I'm not on that "serve-list," but it's not difficult identifying those who think along those lines. Through various legal blogs, one can look through articles published post-Trump's election in support of Trump on positions claimed to be in conflict with provisions in the Constitution, e.g. the emoluments clauses, the take care clause, etc. Fortunately there have been extensive responses to these Trump-supportive-articles.

As to Brooks, he is trying to maintain his conservative credentials while at the same time being negative on Trump. Brooks is hoping for a comeback of his concept of conservatism, whatever that really is. Brooks was a liberal, perhaps even a progressive, when as a young man he challenged William Buckley, Jr.'s conservative views. Buckley may have recognized a writing talent in Brooks that just might be a threat to Buckley's conservatism and "co-opted" Brooks by giving him a job at his magazine. That led to Brooks at the WSJ and then to the NYTimes. Brooks was fairly party line in lockstep with the Bush/Cheney Administration despite its many errors/problems. During the Obama presidency, Brooks' conservatism shifted to a mode of defending conservatism but avoiding being too critical of Obama. Now, with Trump, Brooks tries to play a balancing game with his conservatism, with many of his columns filled with quotes from political and social science authors to focus on his view of conservatism, perhaps for a book project, or for when a more establishment Republican comes along after Trump. But by then Brooks' conservatism would no longer be recognizable, as conservatism is undergoing major changes with Trump. Brooks is "mailing in" his columns.

As to what the Democrats should do in addition to healthcare, the seeds have been planted that Trump is a national security risk. America's enemies well recognize the weakening of America internationally with Trump's America First strategy, his being a "Nationalist." Putin in a recent speech recognized that under Trump American hegemony has taken a beating. But talking too much about this might further weaken America, as Trump seems to be taking little action to thwart foreign interference with the 2018 elections.

As to Trump's recent claim of being a nationalist, critics have pointed out this is a dog whistle for "white nationalist." Brooks had a column after this statement by Trump in which Brooks made his claim as an American Nationalist in response, distinguishing himself from Trump, but keeping a foot in his conservatism that has been undergoing change under Trump. Maybe Brooks might rethink back when that he was indeed "co-opted" many years ago by Bill Buckley.

David Ricardo said...

It is impossible for opponents of Trump and his part of the Republican party to mount a campaign to emphasize and expose the moral bankruptcy of their positions because the Trump supporters embrace those positions. The problem is not that the electorate doesn't know or understand the moral deficiency of current Trump controlled Republicans. The problem is that the electorate that supports Trump not only is aware of the morality, but also embraces it.

Trump is a reflection, a mirror of a a large minority and possibly a small majority of the American voter who wants the nation to move towards a white male ruling class. Ignoring this reality and pretending or hoping it does not exist is a road to failure of the American democracy.

Joe said...

Working and raising families tends to require good health care. Dignity of workers and their families requires good health care. Other nations realize this and do more than us in providing it to everyone. Something like Medicare for All (which is just a general statement -- it can be done in various ways), as discussed by many, can cut down health costs. I'm not seeing the "existential threat" exactly.

The people as a whole, including workers, have shown they are very concerned about health care. This includes when they were worried Republicans were going to vote to threaten basic parts of ACA. They supported Medicaid expansion (many on Medicaid are workers) even in red states. Ending ACA and threatening Medicaid/Medicare has been the Republican Holy Grail. Maybe, if they stop threatening it, Democrats will stop focusing so much on it.

As part of (1) and (2), stop accusing people who want enforcement of immigration laws of being racist, and stop saying that undocumented workers are doing jobs.

Democrats as a whole "want enforcement of immigration laws." The concern here is not "enforcement of immigration laws" in general. It is people who support racist policies. It's a thing. Trump is a racist and a lot of his base support are racists or enable racists. We can stop worrying about or mentioning this.

It still is going to be there. Likewise, undocumented workers are doing jobs. Jobs is a major reason such workers came here over the centuries (including in the turn of the 20th Century, where foreigners were deemed specters too). So, again, we can not talk about it (and it's not just picking strawberries or something -- it will include some jobs people here will do here in various cases -- again, historically, this resulted in conflicts) but it's a thing.

"(and acknowledge that USMCA is a huge improvement on NAFTA)"

Dodgers won the World Series too, right?

former student said...


I think your cutting off my quote at the end of "jobs" is quite unfair, as I never said undocumented workers aren't "doing jobs." Of course they are, and I never said anything critical of undocumented workers, either, who obviously are taking risks as well as working hard to improve their lot in life. My point was that there is no such thing as a job that "Americans won't do" -- that is all a function of wages, hours, and conditions. So that defense of undocumented immigrants doing domestic and farmworker and construction jobs is, perhaps unintentionally, a defense of the prioritization of lower cost goods and services over worker protections.

It is more pernicious because it is backed by accusations of racism. I think it is a form of gaslighting to label as racist those who want immigration laws either to be enforced or to be changed, particularly when those doing the labeling appear to be defending and protecting this peculiar system of unenforced immigration laws and the accompanying labor exploitation of a (tragically, ethnically identifiable) underclass. Gaslighting makes people crazy in fairly predictable ways. Here, it has turned people into racists. You got Trump. Cutting my sentence off to misrepresent what I'm saying may have been an honest mistake, or it may have been another example of the technique, intended to turn a non-racist statement into one that appears to be racist.

CJColucci said...

To whom are Democrats supposed to make Brooks's "moral" case for getting rid of Trump? Name three voters out there, not already convinced of Trump's moral unfitness, who might actually respond to being told about it.

Shag from Brookline said...

Once again, CJ has come through, with just a few choice words, for proper focus, to wit, here, on Brooks' advice. (I've said this before, we don't hear from CJ often enough.)

Tip O'Neill once claimed that all politics is local. But times have changed, especially with Trump. Mid-term elections do still tend to be local compared to presidential election years. Trump is trying to make the 2018 mid-terms national, all about him, even though he is not on any ballot. While there may be national overtones this year, political agendas are not uniform, at least for Democrats. I would rather put stock in what the Democrats are doing, especially with healthcare, than what Brooks might be suggesting. There is a lot of information available out there for voters, but many voters don't have the time or inclination to be fully informed. I don't believe that Brooks is that influential among voters across the country. (The same might b said of many pundits.)

It might be beneficial if more voters read this NYTimes column: "Trump’s Corruption: The Definitive List - The many ways that the president, his family and his aides are lining their own pockets." By David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick, Oct. 28, 2018.

Yes, there's lot of information out there, but you can't make voters read it.

Joe said...

To somewhat briefly respond to Shag's latest, I think many campaigns do still focus on the local, and you can get a sense of that watching debates on CSPAN. As a member of a national party, it never is merely about that though more so in our system.

To forestall confusion, in no way are Dems merely out there talking about health care, even if it is a theme common enough to notice. I think that's sensible.

The "in play" voter is affected by various things. As with '16, hard (though we have covered this here) to determine what "magical" thing will work there. We shall see. John Oliver's piece on attorney generals last night points to one concern.

JS said...

Are "emigrate or go into hiding or self-censor" the only possible responses to Trumpian Fascism?

I hope someone will point out a fourth possibility to your "pro-Trump-adjacent listserv member", that of resistance. Stand up and be counted. Oppose evil and defeat it.

Shag from Brookline said...

As a follow up to my 10:06 AM comment on Trump as a national security risk, check out this:

"Tomgram: Michael Klare, On the Road to World War III? "

After the short introduction, read:

"The New Global Tinderbox - It’s Not Your Mother’s Cold War" By Michael T. Klare

With the Cold War, it was a bipolar world, now we may be heading into a tripolar word. Are voters aware of what's going on internationally? Trump's focus is on a diminishing caravan still far from the Mexican border. America seems no longer the world's unipolar leader with Trump's America First policies, that now include an apparent effort by a Trump Executive Order to limit birthright citizenship.


Shag from Brookline said...

Speaking of David Brooks, I just read his current column in the NYTimes"

"The New Cold War - The forces of division and the forces of connection."

Brooks focuses upon social disorders in America, that the threat covered in Michael Klare's essay I noted in my 9:21 AM comment. If America has a "New Cold War" domestically, how well will America be prepared for a new international "Cold War"? Meantime, foreign efforts continue to thwart America's midterm elections. Is representative governance failing America under Trump's leadership?

Alas, voters may not be aware of these threats. Maybe Congress will get off its duff after the midterms.