Even for someone who grew up in New York, the health care debate--and the more general political discussion--is getting nastier and nastier. As I've noted both here and at my political blog [www.pa2010.com], much of this is indisputably coming from the right. But a matching and in many respects more insidious kind of escalation has lately been coming from the left, including many academics, as well.
Last week Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, posted "Of Rodeo Clowns and Health Care Despair" at the Balkinization blog. In it he referred to several arguments being made by health care opponents as "completely unhinged" and quoted another writer (Steven Pearlstein) saying that "Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers" have become "political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus" on health care. Dan Shaviro, in "Start Making Sense," refers to the "Republicans' hateful lying about death panels" adding that his arguments are aimed at those who are "sane and believe in civil society" but that "[t]he rest, apparently a large majority of their number, do not bear discussing." (In fairness, Shaviro also devotes substantial energy to discussing more substantive objections, including adverse selection and moral hazard, which he distinguishes from more emotional positions.) Writing not about health care but economic policy, Neil Buchanan at Dorf on Law describes Newt Gingrich, a senior Republican figure, as "peddling . . . outright lies and distortions" adding "there is precious little evidence that he has ever had an innovative idea in his life." In other posts he has referred to Gingrich as suffering from "partisan Tourette's" syndrome and suggested that he (Buchanan) would uncover the "excuses" of those who opposed his views on progressive taxation.
Language of this kind obviously won't convince anyone who doesn't agree with the authors: it is probably best understood as a metaphorical letting off steam in the midst of a heated debate that is not going particularly well for one's side. But it is enormously damaging, in a much more longstanding way--especially given the sources--than anything being said by opponents of the health care package. To see this, let's consider a few basic points:
1. There is nothing fundamentally irrational, insane, or otherwise illogical about opposition to the President's health care plan.--
At a time of record unemployment and large and growing budget deficits, President Obama has called for dramatic expansion of the Federal Government's role in health care, while at the same time rejecting the funding mechanism (taxation of all or a portion of employer-provided health benefits) most often proposed as a way to pay for it. In the absence of any other obvious way to finance it, senior citizens and others have not unreasonably concluded that much of it will ultimately be paid for by reducing benefits that they now receive, a suspicion that has been further encouraged by repeated comments from Administration figures about the need to rein in, control, or prevent waste and abuse in Medicare and other existing health care programs. Their fears on this score may not reflect great generosity of spirit--one can make a pretty good case that more should be spent on younger and poorer people and less on older and wealthier ones--but they are hardly irrational and, indeed, no more selfish or mean-spirited than the behavior of any other group threatened with similar consequences. The allegation that these people are somehow being used by doctors, insurance companies, or other "special" interests is especially bizarre since most special interests in fact support the bill.
2. The attempt to divert attention from the underlying reasons for opposition to the bill, and focus it on a handful of rowdy demonstrators, is both empirically unconvincing and has distasteful historical precedents.--
Every major poll shows large and growing opposition to the health care proposal and President Obama's overall performance, a skepticism which (at least on the first count) crosses party and regional lines. To attempt to discredit literally tens of millions of opponents based on the rowdy behavior of a few hundred demonstrators is--in addition to being bad politics--logically incoherent and morally untenable. It is also, to say the least, historically ironic: as several authors have pointed out, this is precisely the argument that was made against Vietnam War protesters and (earlier) civil rights demonstrators, who likewise had their share of rowdies but also had winning arguments and (eventually) majority support.
3. Even the most bizarre and extreme arguments being made by protesters, if exaggerated, contain important kernels of truth that should not be dismissed by policy-makers.--
The two arguments most commonly cited as irrational are (i) the "death panels" suggestion and (ii) the distinction between Medicare and socialism (as in, no socialized medicine but don't touch my Medicare benefits). Obviously, these are not arguments that would be made by law professors. But neither are they wholly incoherent. The death panels argument reflects, if crudely, the fear that the new legislation will set spending priorities in a way that puts older and weaker people at the bottom of the barrel: hardly an idle fear given the rules in other national health care systems and the indifference that liberals have shown toward religious values on matters ranging from abortion to end-of-life issues. The socialism vs. Medicare argument--which I doubt anyone except President Obama has actually made--reflects a not unreasonable distinction between elderly people, who are uniquely vulnerable and may not have the ability otherwise to provide for their own health care, and younger, healthier people whose tradeoff between security and independence may be quite different. For similar reasons society provides financial protection for the elderly (social security) that is not extended, and which no one seriously proposes extending, to the remaining population. Again, this may or may not be a convincing argument--one could argue that children are more vulnerable than old people, and certainly a better investment--but neither is it irrational, incoherent, or reflective of a false consciousness.
Why do liberal commentators persist in a smear campaign that is both logically unconvincing and unlikely to gain them much political traction? It may help to reflect upon the life experiences of today's liberals and their view of recent history.
I think that most contemporary liberals--especially in academics--have never been exposed to serious conservative opinion, other than the law-and-economics version which is (in my view) more a bastard version of marxism than real conservatism, anyway. In particular, few of them have any grasp of the worldview identified with the evangelical and Catholic churches and their very real sense of Government as a dictatorial, anti-religious force in contemporary life. Unable to comprehend the underlying moral bases for opposition to abortion, gay marriage, or an overbearing Federal Government, they tend to place the opposition into categories they are more comfortable with--race, gender, economic self-interest--and attack it on that basis. Indeed, many younger liberals are not even comfortable with economic issues, seeing all opposition as based on "racism" or "bigotry" and the evil effects of television advertising.
One most also consider the liberal interpretation of recent political history. Eight years of the Bush Administration were rendered tolerable only by the sense of its supposed illegitimacy and the hope of something better after. The notion that Obama is less than a savior--that he is following a trajectory not essentially different from that of Carter or Clinton before him--is simply too much to handle. Unable to face the increasingly obvious fact that most Americans don't share their agenda, they turn to conspiracy theories.
What is most chilling about this kind of rhetoric--what I think makes it ultimately worse than anything the Republicans are doing--is its effect on young people. At the end of the day, nobody thinks that the town hall meetings are a model of political behavior. But today's students see their own teachers--the people they look to as role models--using words like crazy, unhinged, or liars to describe people that they disagree with on domestic policy issues. They see careers advanced, and reputations made, using terms that a fourteen year-old would be punished for using at the dining room table. What is going to be their future, and what will the effect of all this name-calling be when today's politics have long since been forgotten?