Thursday, March 25, 2010

Health Care: A Matter of Ideology

(This blog should have appeared a few days ago. For some reason after I uploaded it, it got lost. Sorry.)

Something is happening to the American political ethos when members start shouting in the hallowed chambers of Congress.

I can remember of visit to the U.S. in 1991 when Congress was debating whether to go to war against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I was living in France at the time, used to seeing the French parliament in all its disorderly conduct. The polite yet passionate debate over the war struck me as the epitome of civilized behavior, something the French still had to learn.

Well, all that was very relative, as I have since realiz-ed. The reason why the French (and other) parliaments get into heated arguments is because their members have profound ideological differences. The reason why the American Congress has remained staid and dignified is that its members espouse essentially the same ideology. That ideology goes under the label of non-ideology, but there is no such thing: the liberal ideology is that of free-market capitalism. It has a pedigree just like communism, socialism, or fascism.

By claiming to be non-ideological, our political class implies that ideologies are bad, whatever they are, hence keeping all competing ideologies at bay.

Now something has shifted in the seemingly immutable tectonic plates of our political world: the effort to bring American health care within striking distance of the rest of the developed world - and even some underdeveloped countries - has shattered the carefully constructed myth that politics can be non-ideological. The proof: a Republican member of Congress called the President a liar during his State of the Union Speech, and yesterday, during the final debate on health care, a member of the opposition shouted that Bart Stupak was a “baby killer”.

The President has mentioned several times of late that there are “profound ideological differences” between the Democrats and the Republicans, all the while claiming that he is not an ideologue.

That insurmountable contradiction is due to the President’s conviction has that people can be “nudged” into doing what is right: behavioral politics. The furies unleashed by the right - of which we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg - are proof that the chasm is too wide between those with progressive ideas and those opposed to such ideas for this country to be reformed by nudging.

In politics there has always been and will always be a left and a right, regardless of how these ends of the spectrum are designated with respect to any existing government. (In the Soviet Union under a communist regime, the “left” was the liberal-oriented opposition; in Iran today, the same is true of those who oppose the right-wing mullahs.) Left is generally understood to mean more free-dom from the power apparatus, and in the twenty-first century it also means more solidarity, a recognition that individuals, while valuing freedom, require the support of the larger community to fully benefit from their individual freedom.

In a world of six going on seven billion inhabitants, solidarity can no longer be carried out on a neighborly basis: it has become one of the tasks of government. Those who are determined to deprive America’s less advantaged of health care fail to accept this reality. Their opposition is so visceral that it has broken through the barrier of respectability built up over the decades since Americans had a Progressive Party to counter the power of big business.

If the President learns only one thing from this battle - which is not yet over - it is that he should have taken the bull by the horns and drafted a “government takeover” of the health system, meaning simply that care would not be subject to profit. The battle would hardly have been more virulent than the one he has been through, for what is at best a first step. Because now the myth that we have a non-ideological system has been exposed.

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