It’s not so rare that politics turns into dreaming dreams of revenge–and dreams of monsters. Newly-acquired power is intoxicating rather than edifying or instructive. Things get in the way of getting what you want and that encourages revengeful action. The solidity — or at least viscosity — of political life is almost unbearable. The more you want to change things the harder it gets, it seems. What do the supporters of the current president or administration have but anger at their opponents, who are either invisible or too many to count? Politics for supporters of the president looks like an endless series of the same two choices: Shout in anger at people you want to destroy or give up on politics in disgust.
So also with those who are afraid of the power they themselves or their allies no longer wield: They begin to see monsters lurking in every change. The boundaries of reality are an unsteady bulwark against nightmares. You never know what’s coming. You only know that you’re not in control. The unprecedented vulgarity of the administration and its talking puppets humiliates the proud architecture of D.C. and the usual decorations that feed the American pride in America and the way things used to be. By itself, that announces unfathomable changes. Politicians in D.C. still wear suits, but might turn to demotic habits at any point now, it seems. The conventions and politeness of politics now seem shattered, humiliated.
But how can both parties, majority and minority in Congress, in and out of the White House, be similarly bewildered and unwieldy? The answer in America is fairly obvious: Neither side has any idea where the people stand. For American politics not to lose its grounding and slip into fantasies — in our times, dark fantasies — politicians and parties and press have to have some sense of where the people are. What is the majority coalition of our times and what is it for? Nobody seems to know; it’s not clear to me who’s bothering to ask. In defense of the politicians, it has to be said that the people don’t seem to know either; and that prophecy-by-popularity in the polls has been especially unhelpful recently.
Let’s get a grasp on this nightmare world of politics by comparing it to the problem we’re facing: Healthcare. The ongoing failure of the GOP-Trump attempt to reform healthcare is the evidence of political incompetence in our time. I don’t mean to let the Democrats off the hook in this case, either. Nor to say it’s over–ongoing is the word for this failure. It’s not going away. Nor yet the press–nor its audience. But we’ll take things one at a time.
Let’s start with the parties. In all this confusion, you’d have to put a gun to someone’s head to get any reflections on why healthcare reform is such a big deal. Or rather, being that America’s politicians cannot make deals and aren’t even trying, such a big problem. The typical partisan remarks about healthcare are remarkably evasive. Conservatives will typically say, you can’t mess with a sixth of the economy. Too big to govern or manage from D.C.–that’s the conservative line, implying too big to manage well. The conservatives want to reduce ‘management’ to ‘good management’, ‘managing well’, because they’re scared of something. Of what? Of the possibility that the people want healthcare managed by the federal government. They want to avoid asking if that’s what the people want and, if so, whether they should be given it, or what should be done about it.
This is partly because conservatives are scared of the people, but partly because they don’t much care for governing well. They’d repeal Obamacare if it were spectacularly unpopular, but it isn’t. Or they’d do it if they were spectacularly popular, but they’re not. As things stand, they’re just negotiating surrender and not quite sure to what or to whom. The important fact about the president and the Congressional GOP is that they’re not even trying to persuade the people of their policy, whatever it might be.
With Democrats, politics has moved from enthusiasm to hysteria. There are people dying in the streets every time a Republican opens his mouth. What do Democrats want? To save the rights of the people. Accordingly, healthcare is a right and no one should be killing poor people by not giving them the medical care they need. The Democrats want to perfect the administrative obfuscation of America.
As whole owners of the administrative state, they’ve got a lot of explaining to do. They’ve traveled down the arduous road from defined benefits to defined contributions, for one thing. From what the federal government owes you to what you owe it. They’re now hard at work conflating insurance, in the traditional sense, with newspeak “insurance.” I use the latter for lack of a better word, because English as yet lacks a term for a legal situation that comprises everything from empty promises made in public to a legal threat to be punished by the government. In the Democrats’ view of administration, people have a right to the things they are compelled to buy — better to say, the things they are compelled to pay for, because it’s uncertain anything’s being bought. This brings us to the final confusion of rights and actual medical care. A right is not a thing, it’s some kind of legal-political relationship between citizens, and including government. You might not get any medical care and still have the right to it. This is what the Democrats are trying to hide. They’re not trying to improve the medical system. They’re trying to tie the people to the federal government by a complex, but incoherent system of grievances, outrage, and resignation in the face of Leviathan. The result is not saving lives, but blighting souls.
So both parties are ideologically committed to inducing despair in the people. The GOP is now the party of: Healthcare is too big to succeed. The Democrats: Too big to fail. This is partly what’s confusing the people, who would like to see what policies each party has to offer, whereas the parties are busy persuading the people that nothing can be done. The parties react to this incongruity with more dissembling: With theater. The GOP is pretending to repeal Obamacare–the Democrats are pretending that Obamacare is under threat of repeal. Both will raise money and, they hope, burst a few veins for rhetorical effect. They’ve done it since 2010 with great success. The more Americans die of apoplexy cursing each other’s names, the more serious the political parties look. Human sacrifices are a small price to pay for giving people the illusion that politics makes sense. The problem is that the people aren’t aware they’re being played.
The problem over at the White House seems to be an utter lack of a plan — going through a presidential campaign is supposed to give you a sense of what your electorate expects on the most serious issue in practical politics in a generation. You make some decisions about what you learn and you try your best. Not this White House. Over in Congress, it seems that the GOP really doesn’t want to do anything. They’re far less in a hurry than is the president, and for good reason. The president is utterly innocent of the political crisis of healthcare, and new to the game. Not so the Congress. Both parties have been turning healthcare into the death knell of the republic, neither willing or able to take public sentiment seriously and come up with a reliable majority coalition–one that is fairly conversant with public opinion–and which therefore can legislate. At this point, America looks like a place where you have to be as utterly ignorant as the president to think that you can legislate.
That’s a problem for the president — but it’s far worse a problem for everyone else.