Off the Ledge….For Now

By Mike Koetting November 16, 2020

It was a weirder week than usual in my brain.

On the one hand, there was the absolute relief of Bidden winning the election. That was a very happy moment.

But, at the same time, it was necessary to deal with the fact that more people voted for Donald Trump this time than last time.

This did more than confound my imagination. It brought me to near emotional paralysis. I had expected to see a measurable decline in support. I needn’t reiterate all the things he did wrong or all the people who thought he was a menace to democracy. Never in my life has there been such an array of the other party’s officials—including many who actually worked in his administration—warning against their candidate’s re-election. Or a president whose brazen incompetence caused so much tangible damage. But it didn’t seem to make much difference.

Even before the onslaught of Trump’s hallucinatory complaints about the election, and the shocking unwillingness of Republic leaders to clarify the status of the emperor’s clothing, I was sunk into depression. It is incontrovertible that the county is split in two.

This is not simply a lament about the political stalemate. The election forced me to face that half the country lives in a different reality. Not—has a different of view of reality—but a different reality. These are words that we have all tossed around in recent months. But when I tried to confront the practical implications of what that means in the context of real election results, I was destabilized. It was much more than the messiness of the moment. It was a profound intellectual and emotional concern for the future of American democracy. All I could see was a country split between two intractable groups, like Moslems and Hindus in India who would rather divide the country than live together. There is no talking to the other. If this were a marriage, the only sensible course would be to call the divorce lawyers.

Faced with that, I came within a hair’s breadth of walking away from this blog. I started this blog to offer a liberal perspective that acknowledged the lack of easy answers and admitted that reaching the right policy would require careful navigation among difficult options and multitudes of complexities, between hell and high water. But I was starting to feel, instead, that between hell and water was being trapped between raging wildfires and rising hurricane waters, And no way out.

It was impossible for me to see how we address any of the critical issues facing the country—or the species—given the divide and the inherent conservative bias of American institutions. It seemed pointless to opine on policy options when I didn’t think there was any practical way they could be entertained. And I couldn’t see the point of writing a blog to argue that there is no way out. That’s a lose-lose proposition. The best I could hope for is that I was abjectly wrong. So why bother?

It may well turn out that my premonition there is no way out is correct. The obstacles are formidable, more formidable than is any fun to consider. What pulled me back from the ledge was an article in the Washington Post by Juliet Eilperin and Annie Linskey that listed a bunch of environmental steps not requiring Congressional approval that Biden could do. These aren’t enough to change the tide of environmental degradation, but they could be meaningful.

They would accomplish two other things. First, they would change the tone. Much of the energy for environmental justice comes from young people, who will inherit the mess we are leaving. Creating breathing room for them will be crucial, even if it just inspires them to demand more. Second, it may well create more political openings for some progress. Setting aside certain stridently doctrinaire corporations, what business wants even more than lack of regulation is consistency of regulation. Let them know the rules and they’ll figure out how to deal. The whip-sawing every time the electoral margin shifts by a few percentage points creates a terrible business climate. Strategically applied pressure from a Biden administration could lead corporations to lobby for sufficient bi-partisan agreements to change law, rather than leaving them exposed to the oscillating vagaries of executive orders. Such laws wouldn’t be everything I want, or indeed think is necessary, but would be a step in the right direction and open the door to further discussion. Simply creating a situation where people felt it necessary to have concrete policy discussions on this critical issue would be a great improvement over the shadow boxing that has passed as debate for the past 20 years.

In a bizarrely similar way, I have come to see Trump’s reaction to the election as having a small silver lining. Don’t get me wrong. I could write a whole blog about why this is terrible for the country—and plenty of people are writing about it. It’s horrible. But, with the new attitude that I’m trying to develop of finding something useful in the garbage dump, it seems to me that these railings—one commenter described them as “King Lear with a five-iron and a Twitter account”—will cause doubts in at least some would-be Trump supporters. I’m not talking about a wholesale defection. The election cured me of any fantasies along those lines. But this is so deranged, and so disconnected from the horrible toll the pandemic is taking on the people, it might chip off a few people. A few people may seem pitiful under the circumstances. But we need to remember Biden won the popular vote by less than 4%.  A percent here, a percent there….and it starts to make a difference. We all have to accept that the unity Biden preaches is going to require a long war of attrition, one tiny gain at a time.

Will these incremental gains be enough to stave off disaster? None of us know. But for now, I’m going forward with the blog looking for ways to escape the fire and the flood. It’ll be a slightly different direction than focusing on the difficulties of navigation. It will, I hope, focus on finding possibilities and, where there is total uncertainty, helping to think where we might look for paths. I admit that now these paths are not obvious. So it may take a while.

And if I suddenly go dark, you’ll know what happened. But I don’t see many better options. Like the Eagles say in “Hotel California”:

You can check out any time you like

But you can never leave

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.

One thought on “Off the Ledge….For Now”

  1. Michael – Take a few deep breaths. Of course I had the same reaction to the number of Trump voters. Then my 91 year old neighbor told me he voted for Trump due to his position against abortion. I am going to choose to believe that many others didn’t really care about Trump’s craziness, they just cared about some of his positions. Anyway, remember how the country seemed totally split around 1968-1972? I don’t think this is much worse, and we all got past that. I also remember as a teenager reading endlessly about US and Russian missile counts, and thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis that millions might die. So I hate to be an optimist, but this too shall pass. Please keep writing the blog. I am especially interested in policies that are liberal enough that they matter, but small enough that Mitch McConnell and the conservative tribe might let them through. — Jim

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