I read a tweet the other day that said something like, “Increasingly, Western democracy is based on the idea of having a right to work, not a right to live.” And this seems accurate overall. But what sounds a bit weird to me is the inclusion of the qualifier “increasingly.” The state of affairs this person describes has always been the case.
There’s nothing novel about this value system, as it’s the bedrock of a capitalist society. Work is what is demanded in order for someone to earn their life, and, for those most oppressed by state and industry, even that miserable equation may never balance. The United States, to take one example of a Western democracy, is a country founded on slavery. This wasn’t a contradiction of its founding but a crucial (and ideologically consistent) element of it. It’s tough to make sense of the philosophy of a country that accommodated and encouraged the slave trade without seeing that, from its very beginnings, that philosophy prioritized work over human life.
In some ways, we can interpret the political history of the US as the negotiation of this tension between work owed and life earned. During the post-World War II boom, it seemed like the balance might be starting to tip a bit more toward granting people some security and stability in their lives. By the 1980’s, though, we were reverting to the more predictable circumstance, into an era in which it has again become obvious that the lives of most people are treated as secondary to their ability to work consistently and productively. And I’m going to suggest that the major project of the Democratic Party during this same period has been to navigate this territory to try and find ways that obscure this truth without challenging it in any fundamental way. (Republicans don’t have this problem because their strategy involves a wholehearted embrace of the idea that the value of a human being has to be proven through labor. This is the bootstrapping philosophy. It’s their party line.)
This project has led the Democrats to pursue all sorts of compromises in order to engineer the appearance of a balance between free market capitalism and social democracy. It hasn’t achieved anything resembling a balance here, but has instead created a framework for determining what is considered politically possible and what is considered futile. Things like universal healthcare or free public college, for example, are decidedly in the latter camp. The long-term effect of this has been a calcification of the party’s ideology with regard to major economic policies. These discussions on the necessity of fighting only for what is “possible” lead to a kind of fatalism, a self-defeating attitude in which no new ideas can be proposed, no capitalist orthodoxy can be challenged. We’ve seen where this helps lead us: rampant wealth disparity, stagnant wages, declining union membership, employment insecurity, rising healthcare and education costs, and all the rest.
The difficulty with this political practice, though, is not just that it’s bad ethics (which it often is) but that it’s also bad politics. This careful calibration of political plausibility, which generally offers complex half-answers to questions like “how will I afford my kid’s surgery?,” only (barely) makes sense when everybody involved from all parties is engaged in a similar effort, trying to make these complicated answers seem necessary for a functioning society. The moment the political spectrum changes at all – as it did over the past 18 months – this whole strategy stops working. Trump campaigned on a platform of simple answers to complex problems, and the fact that his solutions were all terrible and seemed destined for disaster didn’t matter as much as anyone on the left had hoped. He demonstrated that there is a sizable chunk of the electorate that has lost patience for the political machinations we’ve grown accustomed to. Compromise can be ignored in favor of claiming simple populist solutions. This is an approach that can make Democrats look ridiculous by comparison.
Healthcare is a good example. Trump has recently been claiming that his goal will be to provide affordable health coverage for everyone. No one has any idea what this actually means. Considering his advisory team, it’s possible that he’ll propose something like health savings accounts and then claim he fixed the problems. But he could also actually propose universal healthcare, recognizing the enormous potential to gain goodwill and support from the electorate by doing so. At that point, Democrats would have very little to offer in the debate, because they have spent much of the last 40 years explaining to their constituency that universal healthcare is impossible. Whatever political battle that would occur afterward would not look great for their party. (If Trump were to somehow propose and get Congress to pass and fund actual, universal public healthcare, the Democratic Party would probably implode, and this country would become a one-party Republican state until the sun mercifully devours the earth.)
In the short term, it may not matter much whether or not Trump actually manages to do anything about healthcare. What matters is that he is willing to say, with a straight face, that literally everyone will have coverage, that it will be high quality, and that it will be inexpensive. He will be lying. But if voters feel like he’s trying to pursue that objective – and they’ll probably give him a wide berth here – he’ll do alright. What they will remember is that they never felt that assurance from Democrats, who have spent much of the past six years explaining, not defending, the Affordable Care Act, a law designed to increase access to healthcare without ever risking the profit potential of private insurance companies.
Evidence of the crisis facing the Democrats’ commitment to Third Way-ism appeared recently with the Senate’s vote on a proposal regarding the importation of Canadian drugs in an attempt to make medication more affordable for Americans. It didn’t pass. What attracted the most attention, though, was Cory Booker’s vote against the proposal, particularly because Booker is viewed by many as a potential candidate in the 2020 elections (assuming we’re still having elections by then).
This Vox article discusses the situation and comes to Booker’s defense, constructing an argument about federalism and states’ interests that sounds something like political pragmatism. What it does not do, in any meaningful sense, is offer a response to those who think medication is too expensive and that we should be more committed to investigating and pursuing opportunities to change that. It’s an overwrought argument, going too far into typical punditry in an effort to put distance between a dubious vote and the lived repercussions of that vote.
(It’s also a funny piece because it does a pretty decent job of outlining why so many on the left have problems with Booker. Putting a short defense of his vote at the end of a long list of reasons that explain why people think he sucks makes that defense look a little outmaneuvered. This is also representative of the Democrats’ problems.)
But this controversy is the kind that gets directly at the issues Democrats have faced, currently face, and will continue to face if they don’t change anything. Vox suggests that the real motivation behind Booker’s vote is that he’s looking out for New Jersey, a state with a significant pharmaceutical industry presence. And that’s true – the industry generates billions in revenue every year and employs tens of thousands of people in the state. I’m not sure I believe that allowing for the import of certain Canadian drugs would mortally wound an industry known for exorbitant pricing schemes, but whatever! I understand the argument being made.
The problem here is that the Canadian drug import idea is a proposal that threatens a fragile and inequitable status quo that Democrats have been propping up for a long, long time, a status quo they have never admitted is fundamentally untenable. We can see it as capitalists versus laborers, the haves versus the have-nots, whatever the preferred terms are, but the point is that the socioeconomic dynamic that Democrats have been assisting is one that will never really result in long-term positive gains to most people living in this country.
Those who benefit most from current drug prices are not the pharma companies’ rank-and-file employees that Vox seems to be concerned about, but the people way higher up the management and ownership ladder, as well as those with the money to invest in and trade pharma stocks on Wall Street. Beyond the industry and its investors, almost nobody benefits, because lack of access to affordable medication can, at best, turn people’s finances into a nightmare and, at worst, endanger and kill people.
To recognize this, though, requires recognizing that any disruption of these circumstances would require taking money away from people who already have a tremendous amount of it. American liberalism in the modern era has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to convince voters that this isn’t necessary, that a more equitable society can be achieved without taking much of anything from the wealthiest, most privileged members of society, and that a kind of middle-ground can be cultivated in which the interests of capital are honored and promoted while everyone else gets along without issue. This doesn’t work and it can’t work. This is particularly true when the protections and supports given to those who aren’t already on top are systematically weakened or removed outright, as has been the case for the past few decades.
This is why this debate is so frustrating. Among mainstream Democrats and their supporters at sites like Vox, it often feels like there is an absolute resistance to discussing these concepts. So we find ourselves arguing, for some absurd reason, about whether or not cheaper drugs are worth it…without even really talking about cheaper drugs. Instead, this conversation becomes like so many others, in which ideas about the feasible radically reduce our ability to conceive of any kind of meaningful societal change. At a certain point, the arguments put forth by sites like Vox begin to imply that almost no inequality can be addressed because the status quo is too fragile and valuable to disrupt.
Perhaps it’s unfair to dismiss Booker based on a vote on something that would likely not have passed if Republicans saw Democrats mobilizing behind it. But I do think it is important – necessary, even – to have these discussions about what values we prioritize and where we are willing to compromise. I don’t know that it helps much to demand assent in all circumstances for the perceived security of the party. I understand the desire among Democrats to unify immediately, to try to rally around something that once seemed to work and to then press forward, but this will not achieve the results they think it should. The current iteration of the party doesn’t have the kind of answers people have been, and will be, looking for. This election demonstrated that.
We don’t have to continue to insist that this is the only possibility. Over the next few years, things in this country will get very bad for many millions of people. If the only solution Democrats can offer is a return to this moment – the moment just before catastrophe, a moment filled with all of the gross inequalities and contradictions that led us directly to that catastrophe – then they will have failed. We shouldn’t hesitate to tell them so. People deserve better.