Opinion

What Trump can teach Democrats about chutzpah

Enough with the small-bore technocratic schemes

Another day, another planned atrocity coming from President Trump and congressional Republicans. On Sunday, one of the president's top advisers, Kellyanne Conway, revealed new details about the administration's plans for Medicaid — most explosively that they might change it into a state block grant. It's a terrible idea — one that will slowly destroy Medicaid as we know it. It's also an incredibly unpopular one that will cause an immediate humanitarian disaster; Trump never campaigned on this, and many of his voters who trusted him to help them out with health care are in for a rude awakening. However, if nothing else, it also demonstrates that with some careful planning and a lot of chutzpah, a dedicated minority can impose their will on the nation.

Democrats and American leftists should take note.

If there's one characteristic that jumps out from histories of the conservative movement (by Rick Perlstein or Thomas Frank, for example), it's unrelenting determination. After Herbert Hoover's world-historical failure and the ensuing domination of FDR's New Dealers, conservatism had been utterly discredited by the 1950s. The first Republican president after Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, wrote to his brother: "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history," and of the "splinter group" that did want to do this, "their number is negligible and they are stupid."

But conservatives refused to submit to FDR's New Deal or LBJ's Great Society. Lavishly funded by the reactionary rich, they fought and fought and fought, winning some and losing some, but always dragging American politics to the right. After the disastrously failed presidency of George W. Bush, they were in their worst electoral position in decades. But they quickly regrouped and kept on fighting and marching right. Eight short years later, they're more electorally dominant than at any time since 1928 — and at the head of the most right-wing Congress since before the Civil War (and maybe ever). Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is all but smacking his chops at the prospect of tearing up as much social insurance as possible to feed into the gaping maw of the 1 percent. They've got their shot and they're going to take it.

This brings me back to the ongoing debate between liberals and leftists about how best to enact policy. On one side, many liberals argue that small-bore technocratic schemes like ObamaCare are simply the best that can be done, given the goofy American Constitution and the hydraulic pressures of interest groups. Leftists respond that this sort of policy is the affirmative preference of centrist liberals (and of the donor class that is the source of most campaign donations for such people). Polling and common sense suggests that social-democratic policy like increasing Social Security or Medicare for all would be quite popular and a political winner, and Democrats don't do it because they don't believe in it.

Now, this is more of a spectrum than a set of binary camps. But the election of Trump, and the incredible downballot success of the Republican Party, provides rather a lot of evidence to the leftist pole of the debate. President Trump, the Republican Party, and their upcoming agenda are all horribly unpopular. But it turns out sheer dogged effort can overcome huge political handicaps.

Leftists have not yet succeeded in transforming the Democratic Party into a social-democratic version of the Republican Party. But the Democratic leadership is far weaker than it appeared even two years ago — leftists nearly completed a hostile takeover almost by accident, through the campaign of Bernie Sanders, now the most popular politician in the country. Hillary Clinton's loss massively discredited centrist liberalism, and any of her Wall Street sellout successors will not have remotely the same level of institutional backing that she did.

Finally, there are massive numbers of people ready to be organized into lefty political formations. The various anti-Trump marches around the country on Saturday might well have been the largest protests in American history. Many of the attendees were rather politically muddled, but many were no doubt ready to listen to some bolder political principles. In trying to make converts, leftist organizers will not have the same support from billionaires as conservatives do, but, on the other hand, it is a lot easier to sell policies that actually help large numbers of people — especially at a time when conservatives are passing contrary policy that harms and kills them.

Success is of course not guaranteed, but with hard work and a bit of luck, next time we get a chance to fix health care policy, there won't be any odious Joe Lieberman-style Democrats to destroy good policy out of spite.

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