The Specter of Collegiality

Every social movement has its fetishes and its totems.

The cultural memes of the Right are varied and fairly well-known through frequent lampooning: the War on Christmas, Santa is white, a good binary identifier of poverty is owning a refrigerator, the Civil War was about states' rights, gun ownership is constantly under threat, etc. 

At the same time, liberal memes are explored less outside of the socialist left. Comedians are - as Felix Biederman has pointed out, referring to the conservative fetishization of the military - the liberal equivalent of the Right's "troops." Sarah Jones wrote a wonderful piece about John Oliver's Drumpf hats' popularity in the New Republic in which she pointed to the plethora of what she accurately argued were narcissistic political activism that included safety pins, Harry Potter references, and baseball caps. 

These observations are just scratching the surface of liberal delusion, though. More nefarious memes have permeated the American liberal polity, such as geographical typecasting, celebrity worship, and the incessant need to break down the world into perspectives based on identity where a value judgment cannot be applied to an idea without first seeing a photo of the speaker or author and reading that person's profile. These trends contributed to the increasing devolution of power of the progressive movement and ideological supremacy of the far-Right. As caustic as those forces are, though, no fetish is more pervasive within the American Democratic Party than the obsession with compromise.

In 2011, President Barack Obama desperately yearned for what was then called a "grand bargain." This was supposed to be a sort of super-policy designed to achieve the Tea Party's stated goals of reducing the federal deficit by cutting Social Security and Medicare and, potentially, repealing a portion of the George W. Bush-era taxes. The New York Times published a fairly well-written article that framed the post-collapse nature of the deal and, within it, contained both the Democratic and Republican narratives of the event. These accounts agreed on one point: Barack Obama was willing to make large cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, in exchange for an ambiguous "rewriting" of the tax code left largely to the discretion of a Republican-controlled House, since that branch was and continues to be the main impediment to any legislation. 

The approach to the deal is immeasurably important as a foil to help understand neoliberal progressivism, but the framing of language around Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare cuts at the time is also critically important. A word count scan of a random sample of articles from "liberal" news outlets like the Huffington Post, the Nation, the New York Times, etc. demonstrated an interesting finding. For every four mentions of the word "Social Security," there was one mention of the word "entitlement." "Medicaid" and "entitlement" were close to a one to one ratio. 

Some of these word choice observations may seem pedantic, but the way a conversation is framed matters. "Entitlement" has a colloquial association disambiguated from its formal insurance-based etymological history. The word implies that those possessing the title, who are thus "entitled," are unreasonable in their expectations of drawing on the prerogatives granted by their title. It is a catchall adjective to describe interpersonal parasitism and inconvenience, as explicated by the most popular definition of the word from the internet's collective frat-boy id at Urban Dictionary: "An attitude, demeanor, or air of rudeness, ingraciousness [sic], or combativeness, especially when making excessive demands for service (usually used following the word 'acted')."

The issue here is not a matter of word choice or some liberal arts grad playing with language as if it has meaning divorced from reality. Framing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as "entitlement" is the premise that leads to the natural conclusion that these programs should not exist. From the perspective of mainstream Democrats and all Republicans, social programs are an unearned bonus to the American public who should be grateful for whatever it receives. 

From the Obama Administration's perspective, the very premise going into the negotiations was never whether or not to cut Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, but how to go about doing it. This is not because there weren't more efficient places to make cuts. The $800 billion within ten years that Obama and Speaker Boehner were looking to recoup from Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare recipients represents only .5% of the nominal amount spent on the wars up to 2016 and .16% of the overall projected nominal cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten percent of that $800 billion could easily have been recouped within the year without impacting anyone. As it turns out, the Pentagon has $125 million in identified total waste after McKinsey  performed an internal study.

It is clear, then, that the goal of the cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid within the Obama Administration were informed by two distinct, but interrelated, phenomena.

One trend is purely political and is framed within the context of an innumerable series of phrases designed to promote political unity, couched in statements like "getting things done" and "being realistic." The approach lends itself to this narrative of returning to a golden era of politics where people would reach "across the aisle" and find common ground and it is often in the sitting president's best interest to bolster this perception of being a "unifier." Obama's inability to bridge the divide between the Republican and Democratic Parties, he admitted in his final State of the Union address, was one of his biggest regrets from his time in office. "It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better." It is hard to doubt the sincerity of his statement, given how aggressively he was willing to sacrifice core liberal values. So, when the Tea Party swept to power on the grounds that a paltry attempt at partial health coverage for the extremely poor or wealthy self-employed with preexisting conditions was an authoritarian executive overreach, Obama ran to meet that challenge. This is a trend other people have identified far more rigorously than I, but the overwhelming bend of the modern Democratic party is to find a way to come to a substantive agreement with Republicans while offering symbolic victories to placate the wealthy professional managerial class that now directs the Democratic Party. 

The other trend is that there seems to be a universal consensus that the U.S. government's debt is unsustainable. This flies in the face of most economists understanding of U.S. government debt, barring a catastrophic default, such as not raising the ill-advised legislative structure of the debt ceiling. In fact, U.S. debt had never been more serviceable than during the "grand bargain" negotiations.  On May 1, 2012, the real interest rate on a ten-year U.S. treasury bill - the standard term for discussing long-term governmental debt - was -.28%. Let me rephrase this for clarity: The United States Government was being paid by foreign governments to park their money. The fact that the rightward trend of U.S. politics is a concurrent phenomenon with the incessant seeking of Democratic leaders to find common ground is no accident.

The fact of the matter is that legislation is a zero-sum game. For every $3.5 million that goes into another bunker buster bomb to attack a building that may or may not contain a friend of a friend of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that is a bridge that is not being built, countless lives being lost for lack of money to care for treatable illnesses, a myriad of lost souls to addiction in the face of declining class mobility and access to a living wage, and another starving child somewhere in rural Wisconsin.

Once you accept that policy and legislation are zero-sum, as the Republicans understood for decades, it changes your perspective on everything political. Politics can no longer be a means to give select individuals access to the power to negotiate as an agent. Politics is an end in itself, because only through politics will that zero-sum flag move right or left. So long as the Democrats elect individuals on the basis of "getting things done," the foundation of liberal society will continue to crumble at the expense of the country's most vulnerable people. 

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The End of Centrist Liberalism