Heads You Win, Tails we Lose

By Mike Koetting August 8, 2019

I am not sure whether to chalk it up to the craftiness of Republicans or the naivety of the voters, but we are now witnessing one of the more feckless moments in American politics where the most extreme party in modern history seems to be getting away with painting the other party as “too extreme”.

What’s Extreme?

It’s helpful for this discussion to see the Republican Party as a composite of two separate factions, the Ideological Republicans and the Populist Republicans. In reality, of course, the distinction is not quite this neat, but it’s more than adequate for analytical purposes. The Ideological Republicans don’t care about most of the issues of the Populist Republicans (race, immigration, abortion issues). Their concerns are lower taxes, less regulation, free trade and the ability to make and keep huge amounts of money. This is what Republicans have historically wanted.

Most of America doesn’t want those things, so the Ideological Republicans have joined forces with the Populist Republicans to pass their agenda. Trump is not necessarily the Ideological Republican’s favorite president, but he has proved extremely useful. Which is why they have been willing to suppress their dissent.

From this glued-together Republican coalition we get, on the one hand, a distribution of wealth that may be the most inequitable in the nation’s history; and, on the other hand, a relapse to racist/xenophobic/misogynistic/anti-intellectual attitudes from a century ago. And together the two parts of the Republican Party are working assiduously to undermine core concepts of our democracy by packing the courts, restricting voting rights, undertaking extreme gerrymandering, and eroding the checks-and-balances that have stabilized American democracy since the Civil War. They are committed to whatever is necessary to pursue this agenda, even as a minority party. Both parts of the party also seem willing to court unprecedented environmental disasters.

Against this backdrop, we now have media critics by the boatload screaming that “the Democrats have become too extreme.”

What exactly are their “extremist” positions? Mainly, they want a healthcare program without the intermediation of commercial insurance companies and they think healthcare should be provided to people who are in this country, even if illegally. And, perhaps, in some cases, they are willing to offer concrete programs to improve equity in the distribution of America’s wealth.

It’s hard to argue that these come anywhere near being as extreme as the current Republican Party.

So What’s Going On?

First, I think the drift of the Republican Party has been so gradual and prevalent that the population has come to think of the current status as “normal”. For 40 years now we have been told, often with acquiescence or lukewarm defense from many Democrats, that government was the enemy. That argument was used to bolster a gradual reduction in taxes and a war against regulations of any sort and unions in particular. Concurrently, we had the growth of investor capitalism that separated ownership from operation of industry and made “return” the only relevant measure of corporate success. From, say, the 1930’s until Reagan, the U.S. had an economy in which government and capital maintained a functional balance. Since then the scale has tilted overwhelmingly in favor of capital. In truth, one of the great ironies of “Make America Great Again” is that, if not taken selectively, it would totally rout the Ideological Republicans.

Second, Republicans are relentlessly pushing the theme that Democrats are too extreme. The phrase “socialist Democrats” has practically become a single word. Trump—with his usual indifference to facts–has been the most egregious in this regard, but he is specifically backed by a GOP chorus. For instance, Vanity Fair notes that Mitch McConnell has pretty much defined socialism to include the entire Democratic party. Most people claim they are not fooled by such overt campaign tactics, but the truth is that some people are and, even for those who claim to be unaffected, the constant repetition has an impact, especially on those in the “uncommitted” middle. Careless—or deliberate–use on social media contributes to the effect.

Moreover, the mainstream media is more than willing to play up the issue of “extremism” since controversy generates audience. They could be writing “Democrats totally united in concerns that Republican plans for healthcare are too extreme”. After all, knocking millions of people off healthcare is more extreme than changing how it gets paid for. While the media is focusing relentlessly on the differences among the candidates in the debates, shouldn’t we be asking—in the entire spectrum of things facing the American people–do these differences really define extreme? Especially in the context of what Republicans are actually doing.

Alternatively, the media could be pointing out, for example, that in 2018 UnitedHealth had profits of $17.3 billion. It doesn’t seem that extreme to have a non-hysterical conversation about how—or whether—that degree of profit is consistent with meeting the basic human need for healthcare. Are we convinced that these private entities provide that much magic to healthcare that we shouldn’t even question their current form?

But There Is a Political Context

For better or worse, my idea of what is and what isn’t extreme isn’t relevant. No current candidate is “too extreme” for me to prefer Donald Trump—although I don’t know how I could stand four years of Bernie Sanders’ angry screeching. But reportedly there are people, beside insurance company executives, for whom these issues matter enough to swing a vote.

So, whether it makes sense or not, Democratic voters and candidates need to weigh carefully how their proposals will play in the specific areas where it could make a difference, which, after all, could come down to voters in a small number of counties– in the extreme, as few as seven.

The best answer is not automatically “go more centrist”. No doubt that will help in some areas. On the other hand, turning out more young people and minorities in places like Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee could be the key. And, it is important to remember that sometimes life requires a candidate to be a little ahead of her time. A very insightful article about what changes public opinion by Todd Gitlin notes that polling “beliefs” is a difficult business. Respondents may have never really considered the issue before or they may fixate on a single word in the question. Or their “belief” about one issue may simply be an excuse for a different concern that they fear would be less acceptable.

Gitlin also points out:

A poll of the entire nation was conducted four years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and five years before the Voting Rights Act. In 1960, only one in seven Americans thought either of those necessary.

Of course, Lyndon Johnson didn’t have to campaign on those issues. If he did, perhaps he would not have won in 1964. At this point in our history, no “moral” victory would justify creating circumstances where Donald Trump got re-elected.

Which Is What Makes This Thorny

Faced with the threat of being “too extreme”, many Democrats are feeling compelled to enter into a form of self-censorship. Even though the definition of “center” has moved so far to the right from Democratic principles of 50 years ago, Democrats are pressured to move toward this” center” because to stand up for material change to the economic structure of America gets painted as “too extreme”. The new “center” is in essence the discounted price on an item that was hugely-marked up. Clinton and Obama were not “too extreme” and I appreciate what was accomplished in both their presidencies. But Clinton actively participated in measures that contributed to the current level of inequality and Obama was reluctant to use even the existence of a crisis to sell significant steps because he wanted to find the center.

Turns out, the new “center” is just fine with the Ideological Republicans. Even if Trump loses, if they can keep away from a Warren-like candidate, they win. They get to keep their privileges. To really change the political economic order would be, I guess, “too extreme.”

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “Heads You Win, Tails we Lose”

  1. I think there is only one question for the Democrats: Who can beat Trump? In my opinion, the entire discussion of avoiding extremism among Democrats can be traced back to this. Whether policies like “Medicare for all” are good or bad, if they will cause some people to switch their vote from Democrats to Trump, then this is not a good time to talk about them. 2020 will be a very unusual election in that beating Trump is the ONLY issue that matters.


  2. Astute as always, Michael. Scary to even imagine that even if Dems win, that the Reps could continue to pull us all down. I’m not smiling a lot these days.


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