I’m tired of students who sit in my class for no better reason than that only “students” can remain on their parents’ insurance. I sympathize – I, too, want my children covered. But that’s a lousy reason to stay in school. I ran a small business and couldn’t cover my full-time employees – or at least cover them well. Hot Air links to a small businesswoman protesting. She argues for opened competition and tort reform. In a longer discussion on television, she explains she’d like catastrophic insurance. Portability, cross-state competition, tort reform, catastrophic insurance options – these appear real (direct, market-oriented, constitutional) solutions to real problems. Our system can be improved, but it seems to be righting itself – in the time since I sold my business, our local hmo has opened more options. Why shouldn’t they? We were potential customers.
I suspect, however, that fears of government intervention are real. It isn’t like those countries with nationalized health care have been taking the Nobel prizes in medicine; it isn’t like we want to take our chances with the dramatically lower rate of breast cancer survival. Of course, it isn’t like we’ve ever seen anything that has been vastly improved by adding another layer of bureaucracy. It isn’t like we can trust a Congress in which Charlie Rangel sits nor an executive in which Geithner has a guiding economic role. We know adding programs can’t reduce costs – probably even with draconian rationing.
Individualism, self-reliance, independence – our tradition is not one that has emphasized our rights to nearly as much as our rights from. Leave me alone, we say. And we are skeptical of a government that tempts us with (we suspect ephemeral and ultimately unrealizable) “right tos” in order to, inevitably, distract us from surrender of a cherished “right from” government control. Of course, we don’t think that’s the government’s “right” – our tradition has long argued our freedoms weren’t given us by our government but our nature as humans and/or by God.
Still, I’d like to say that watching that woman made me proud – as has much that has been going on in the last few months. It isn’t just that we live in a country where such protests are allowed and protected by both our laws and traditions. It isn’t just that they often show a speaker like this one – sensible, educated, well-spoken – pragmatic. It isn’t that many of the arguments arising from audiences use common sense, a desire to solve a problem, and a strong sense of history. All that is true, of course.
But what I’m proudest of is that demagoguery doesn’t seem to be working. We hear political voices – Pelosi, Reid, Obama, and countless others – describe bankers, auto-makers, insurance companies as villains because they make profits. When they seem to fear losing an argument, our representatives turn to the pitches of demagogues. When Obama told bankers that he was all that was standing between them and the pitchforks, he was apparently projecting. He expected us to side with him. Few of us did. The hobbled together Acorn vans that set out were not joined by legions of pitch-fork toting Americans. Telling us that the insurance companies made, heaven forbid, profits and therefore should be put out of business was not appealing – it didn’t distract us. Instead, Americans turned on their representatives and wanted to talk issues, solutions, limitations of government power. They understand that a company which overpays its executives is one that, in the long run, will lose a competitive advantage – that is how we might define, for instance, “overpayment”.
And we understand that it is our elected representatives who are responsible to us – if they indulge themselves in a Bermuda week-end, it is we who are paying the bill. Sure, if an ineffective or incompetent executive gets overpaid, we are likely to have to pay more for the product than we would otherwise. But, then again, we don’t have to buy the overpriced product. That’s how the marketplace takes care of us – or, perhaps, we take care of the marketplace.
That we can’t be whipped into a fury, that we just don’t think in the terms that makes us vulnerable to demagogues is our strength – and our pride. Sure, we can get pissed off. Many a person at the tea parties is pissed off. But that is because they have found the people who represent them, who have been elected to serve them, don’t. They don’t all have freezers full of cash, they don’t all take cell phone calls while a voter is speaking at a town hall meeting – but the elected far too quickly see themselves as the “elect” – having access to some grace which lets them see beyond their constituents. They see themselves not as representatives of the people but as representatives of the party in power, not as finders of solutions but as adopters of broad, ideological, consequence-ridden policies. The tea parties have demonstrated exasperation, irritation. But who wouldn’t be exasperated when a congressperson seems to find it absurd that anyone would expect a representative to read a bill on which they are voting? In these meetings, some are patient, some combative, and some just silly. But often they are condescending, rude, and unaware of history. The tea parties at their best, show a give and take of ideas. At their worst, shouting and anger arise from the floor, condescension and vaporous monologues project from the podium.
However, when the class card is pulled, when the rhetoric of soak the rich reaches full voice, when a populist argument springs from the elected officials, the crowd does not follow. They ignore these red herrings. Because that is not what America has been about, is about, or, we can hope, will be about. To certain segments of our population, to people who have found certain ideologies appealing, these make sense. You might think that a century of disasters would have taught us that that coveting is not a wise (nor a productive nor a virtuous) approach to politics. Politicians from Chicago wards or the California of Pelosi & Van Jones might find such thinking compelling. But we don’t – and we believe thinking it is sensible is hardly a sign of respect for us nor of an understanding of American history.