As someone who voted for Barack Obama twice, supported the Affordable Care Act, and could be persuaded to vote for the right kind of single-payer system, I've found the entire health-care debate over the past several months deeply depressing. That's no doubt why my first instinct was to cheer when reading a recent rant against the right from an editor at The Huffington Post.
The transparently titled opinion column, "I Don't Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People," is a perfect expression of our political moment — in its utter exasperation at those on the other side of a policy debate, but even more so in how it casts these partisan opponents as moral monsters with whom communication, let alone persuasion, is simply impossible.
I admit that it does often feel that way these days, especially when it comes to the House and Senate bills to remake the nation's health-care system, since so much of the discussion has been conducted by Republicans in undeniable bad faith — with bills primarily designed to cut or eliminate taxes dishonestly described by leaders in Congress, as well as the president, as efforts to make health care more affordable. (The tax cuts ensure that health care would in fact become much less affordable for millions of people.)
But the instinct to cheer on the argument should be resisted.
The fact is that most intelligent and informed people on the right do not oppose progressive policies because they're stingy bastards who don't give a damn about their fellow citizens. It's true that this may describe some Republicans. There are probably a non-trivial number, especially those unduly influenced by the odious ideas of Ayn Rand, who do come close to viewing the poor as parasitic moochers. But many, many others — the vast majority, in my experience — do not take this position. They believe, instead, that progressive policies do more harm than good for the very people they're designed to help.
Consider the minimum wage. Many conservatives oppose raising it, especially as high as $15/hour, as some municipalities around the country have opted to do over the last few years. Do they take this position because they prefer lower-wage workers to struggle? No. They take this position because they understand basic principles of economics, which predict that raising costs for businesses that employ low-wage workers will lead them to make fewer hires, thereby hurting these workers overall. (A study released earlier this week seems to indicate that this is precisely what's been happening in Seattle since the city began incrementally raising its minimum wage.)
The same holds for the concerns that led the original neoconservatives to make various proposals for reforming crime and welfare during the 1970s and '80s — proposals that powerfully influenced policymaking at the local and federal levels during the 1990s.
My point isn't to make a case for these policies (though I think many of them were defensible in the context of the time). The point is to recognize that the proposals were made with the intent of improving the lives of the poor, crime victims, and others, not with the intent of hurting them, or of giving the rich a post-spending-cut tax break. (While it's true that most of these conservatives supported tax cuts as well, those cuts, too, were justified as a spur to economic growth and job creation that would benefit everyone.)
It's certainly easier and more morally satisfying for those on the left to presume that the right is just motivated by rank selfishness. But it's no more true at an individual level than it is as the level of public policy debate.
Though there's been considerable dispute about studies purporting to show that conservatives are more generous than liberals when it comes to private charity, the most fair-minded critics don't claim the opposite — that only people on the left care about the well-being of their fellow citizens. The critics claim, rather, that ideology is an insignificant variable in determining who gives to charity, and how much.
So much for having to explain to Republicans as a group why they "should care about other people."
Now, it may well be that Republicans are more inclined toward generosity when it comes to private charity than they are with regard to government programs. Is that foolish? Could conservatives do more social good if they supported tax hikes and policies devised and run by the federal government? That's an empirically testable proposition, the outcome of which just might change some minds on the right.
But only if liberals, progressives, and democratic socialists resist the temptation to flatter themselves and demonize their opponents — and keep up the hard, unglamorous, sometimes infuriating work of trying to persuade.