Dancing With Death: The Real Reason That the Public Option is Back
So the public option is back. The headline atop Dan Balz’s story in The Washington Post this morning blares, “New life for the public option.”
But why? Why was the public option (TPO), as Balz puts it, “on life support” just a little while ago, and yet now TPO is up and walking around? Balz’s answer is two-fold; first, there was a backlash against the insurance companies, and second, TPO was rising in the polls, even as the pundits were saying TPO’s last rites. I won’t argue with Balz, a thoughtful and fair-minded reporter, but I think that we can look back and identify, with precision, a more specific “tipping point” in this latest phase of the healthcare debate. A tipping point that speaks volumes about the current political situation, and about larger cycles of popular passion.
That tipping point, in my reckoning, was Rep. Alan Grayson’s September 29 speech from the floor of the House, in which the Florida Democrat declared that the Republican healthcare plan could be summed up as “Don't get sick, and if you do get sick...die quickly.”
So, Grayson says, Republicans want to kill innocent people. Now that was a message that punched through. Because of those words, Grayson instantly rose from freshman obscurity, into (your choice) glory or ignominy. Grayson didn’t apologize, indeed, he used his newfound prominence to light a pro-TPO fire under senior Democrats; on October 14, he personally delivered a strongly worded pro-TPO petition to a fellow Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “It’s so urgent that we move ahead,” Grayson told Politico. “The cost of delay is death.”
So there it is again, the “d-word”--death. Freud argued that all of life is an endless tug-of-war between eros and thanatos, between love and death. And so it follows that if you want to make a powerful argument, you tap into one or both of those two main cables of human thinking. Grayson chose death. And it worked. A killer argument, one might say.
So Grayson provided a vivid bookend to the other super-powerful utilization of the “d-word,” which had earlier been used by one of Grayson’s, uh, mortal enemies. And that enemy, of course, is former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who launched the phrase “death panels” from her Facebook page on August 7. Palin’s use of the “d-word” was similarly electric last summer; within days of her posting, Democrats specifically kiboshed hitherto uncontroversial “end of life counseling” provisions in their healthcare bill.
And yet even so, support for the overall idea of Obamacare fell in the wake of Palin’s attack. Dark visions of death loomed larger in people’s minds than once-bright thoughts of “hope.” And as we have seen, when pro-TPO Democrats made their recent resurgence, it was powered by a death-vision of their own, courtesy of Grayson. Hope had nothing to do with it.
Thus dueling visions of death, Grayson’s and Palin’s, have hardened the two parties’ positions, further polarizing the healthcare debate--it's entirely possible that nothing can be enacted in this environment. So in a sense, this “death match” is of a piece with other polarizing forces in our politics and media.
And there’s also a larger politics lesson here, bubbling up from our collective ids. Wonky policy talk is the natural language of technocrats and experts who must communicate with each other, even across the partisan divide. Moreover, most of the wonks, on both sides of the aisle, are middle- and upper-middle-class strivers. They have been to the same schools, or at least read the same textbooks--whether or not they agreed with what was in them. They are, in the best sense of the word, professionals.
Yet to impassioned outsiders, such wonk-talk is brittle, even sterile, disconnected as it is from the wellsprings of faith and belief. To a Grayson or a Palin, to a Michelle Bachmann or a Dennis Kucinich, fluent professionalism often sounds like opportunism and cynicism, language that obscures more than it reveals. And so, outside the beltway, a new insurgency is always brewing, an attack of mistrustful outsider peripherals on the mistrusted insider core.
So one’s thoughts go back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Across the Western world, in the age of Johnson and Diderot, of Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great, elites and intellectuals agreed on a certain amount of secular and scientific progress--or thought they did. And then came Romanticism, in which poets and peoples rejected the baroque edifices of “the establishment” and embraced, instead, fervor and even mysticism. The result in the 19th century was, as someone put it, better art and worse politics.
Now back to the present day. Like every other aspect of human nature, politics is ultimately driven by visionaries, by those who lead by revelation, from the heart, not the head. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Unfortunately, it is not known if Shaw also said, “All regress, too, depends on the unreasonable man--and woman.”
There will come a day when passions cool, when men and women can come together and reason together. When consensus can be reached and compromise can be forged. But it is obviously not to be this day--or any day soon.