In “The Spiritual Recession” Bobo gurgles that we will dishonor American heritage if we remain indifferent to the triumphs and failures of the global democratic project. In the comments “gemli” from Boston ends a longer comment with this: “If there is a spiritual recession, it was brought about by the same forces of cynical fundamentalist greed that created the economic recession. Were it not for the people who occupied Wall Street, we might have forgotten what democracy looked like.” In “The Incompetence Dogma” Prof. Krugman says but Obamacare wasn’t supposed to work! What were all those cries of impending disaster about? Here’s Bobo:
For the past few centuries, the Western world has witnessed a contest of historic visions. On the one side was the dream of the beautiful collective. Human progress was a one-way march toward socialism. People would liberate themselves from religion, hierarchy and oppression. They would build a new kind of society where equality would be the rule, where rational planning would replace cruel competition.
On the other side was the dream of universal democracy. Human progress was seen as a one-way march toward democratic capitalism. Societies would be held together by shared biblical morality. They would be invigorated by economic competition. They would be guided by a democratic state, where power was in the hands of the masses and dispersed through checks and balances.
These two historic visions had amazing appeal. Millions of people dedicated their lives to socialism or communism. The democratic gospel was just an idea, but it shaped American history. The founders believed that they were writing a Constitution for a nation that would herald a new order of the ages. Walt Whitman wrote an essay called “Democratic Vistas” defining the nation’s spiritual mission, while Lincoln celebrated the last, best hope of earth.
In the 1930s, the radical Leon Samson explained that Americans never went in big for socialism because they already had a creed, which made them happy, gave them work and made history meaningful. “Every concept in socialism has its substitutive counter-concept in Americanism,” Samson wrote, “and that is why the socialist argument falls so fruitlessly on the American ear. … The American does not want to listen to socialism because he thinks he already has it.”
The Cold War settled this contest of historic visions. Democracy won. You would think the gospel of democracy would be triumphant. But, as Mark Lilla writes in an essay called “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age” in The New Republic, the post-Cold War era hasn’t meant the triumph of one ideology; it destroyed the tendency to rely upon big historic visions of any sort. Lilla argues that we have slid into a debauched libertarianism. Nobody envisions the large sweep of events; we just go our own separate ways making individual choices.
He’s a bit right about that. When the U.S. was a weak nation, Americans dedicated themselves to proving to the world that democracy could last. When the U.S. became a superpower, Americans felt responsible for creating a global order that would nurture the spread of democracy. But now the nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing. Democratic vistas give way to laissez-faire fatalism: History has no shape. The dream of universal democracy seems naïve. National interest matters most.
Lilla’s piece both describes and unfortunately exemplifies the current mood. He argues that the notion of history as a march toward universal democracy is a pipe dream. Arab nations are not going to be democratic anytime soon. The world is an aviary of different systems — autocracy, mercantile despotism — and always will be. Instead of worrying about spreading democracy, we’d be better off trying to make theocracies less beastly.
Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.
Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. Without the faith, the left has grown strangely callous and withdrawing in the face of genocide around the world. The right adopts a zero-sum mentality about immigration and a pinched attitude about foreign affairs.
Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with. Young people get fired up by the thought of solar panels in Africa but seem much less engaged in the task of spreading political dignity and humane self-government.
Meanwhile, the country grows strangely indifferent to democratic heroes. Decades ago, everyone knew about Sakharov. But how many raised a fuss over the systematic persecution of democratic activists and Christians across the Middle East?
The democratic gospel was both lofty and realistic. It had a high historic mission, but it was based on the idea that biblical morality is necessary precisely because people are selfish and shortsighted, capitalism is necessary because economies are too complicated to understand and plan; democracy is necessary because concentrated power is always dangerous, no matter how seductive it seems in the short term.
Sure there have been setbacks. But if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for? A great inheritance is being squandered; a 200-year-old language is being left by the side of the road.
Yeah, Bobo — let’s go cram “democracy” down another country’s throat. It’s worked so very, very, very well in the past… Here’s Prof. Krugman:
Have you been following the news about Obamacare? The Affordable Care Act has receded from the front page, but information about how it’s going keeps coming in — and almost all the news is good. Indeed, health reform has been on a roll ever since March, when it became clear that enrollment would surpass expectations despite the teething problems of the federal website.
What’s interesting about this success story is that it has been accompanied at every step by cries of impending disaster. At this point, by my reckoning, the enemies of health reform are 0 for 6. That is, they made at least six distinct predictions about how Obamacare would fail — every one of which turned out to be wrong.
“To err is human,” wrote Seneca. “To persist is diabolical.” Everyone makes incorrect predictions. But to be that consistently, grossly wrong takes special effort. So what’s this all about?
Many readers won’t be surprised by the answer: It’s about politics and ideology, not analysis. But while this observation isn’t particularly startling, it’s worth pointing out just how completely ideology has trumped evidence in the health policy debate.
And I’m not just talking about the politicians; I’m talking about the wonks. It’s remarkable how many supposed experts on health care made claims about Obamacare that were clearly unsupportable. For example, remember “rate shock”? Last fall, when we got our first information about insurance premiums, conservative health care analysts raced to claim that consumers were facing a huge increase in their expenses. It was obvious, even at the time, that these claims were misleading; we now know that the great majority of Americans buying insurance through the new exchanges are getting coverage quite cheaply.
Or remember claims that young people wouldn’t sign up, so that Obamacare would experience a “death spiral” of surging costs and shrinking enrollment? It’s not happening: a new survey by Gallup finds both that a lot of people have gained insurance through the program and that the age mix of the new enrollees looks pretty good.
What was especially odd about the incessant predictions of health-reform disaster was that we already knew, or should have known, that a program along the lines of the Affordable Care Act was likely to work. Obamacare was closely modeled on Romneycare, which has been working in Massachusetts since 2006, and it bears a strong family resemblance to successful systems abroad, for example in Switzerland. Why should the system have been unworkable for America?
But a firm conviction that the government can’t do anything useful — a dogmatic belief in public-sector incompetence — is now a central part of American conservatism, and the incompetence dogma has evidently made rational analysis of policy issues impossible.
It wasn’t always thus. If you go back two decades, to the last great fight over health reform, conservatives seem to have been relatively clearheaded about the policy prospects, albeit deeply cynical. For example, William Kristol’s famous 1993 memo urging Republicans to kill the Clinton health plan warned explicitly that Clintoncare, if implemented, might well be perceived as successful, which would, in turn, “strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.” So it was crucial to make sure that reform never happened. In effect, Mr. Kristol was telling insiders that tales of government incompetence are something you peddle to voters to get them to support tax cuts and deregulation, not something you necessarily believe yourself.
But that was before conservatives had fully retreated into their own intellectual universe. Fox News didn’t exist yet; policy analysts at right-wing think tanks had often begun their careers in relatively nonpolitical jobs. It was still possible to entertain the notion that reality wasn’t what you wanted it to be.
It’s different now. It’s hard to think of anyone on the American right who even considered the possibility that Obamacare might work, or at any rate who was willing to admit that possibility in public. Instead, even the supposed experts kept peddling improbable tales of looming disaster long after their chance of actually stopping health reform was past, and they peddled these tales not just to the rubes but to each other.
And let’s be clear: While it has been funny watching the right-wing cling to its delusions about health reform, it’s also scary. After all, these people retain considerable ability to engage in policy mischief, and one of these days they may regain the White House. And you really, really don’t want people who reject facts they don’t like in that position. I mean, they might do unthinkable things, like starting a war for no good reason. Oh, wait.