Last week, I wrote this:
The fundamental differences between the left and the right — between conservatives and progressives — comes down to how we answer three simple questions: “Can we?,” “Should we?” and “What do we mean, ‘We’?”
Apply them to any challenge we face as a country — Can we make health care available to all? Can we reign in Wall Street? Can we build an economy that works for the other 99% of us? Can we keep teachers, police officers, and fire fighters working in our communities? Can we reduce our contribution to climate change? — and our answers reveal who we are and where we’re headed.
This week, an exchange between two political leaders illustrates that point, and then some.
In one corner is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who looked back over the challenges and crisis the country has dealt with in the past year, and only regretted that his party didn’t do more to block the Obama administration’s and congressional Democrats’ efforts to solve them.
In an interview with the New York Times McConnell said charges that he blocked the president’s agenda are okay by him because of the results.
“I am amused with their comments about obstructionism,” McConnell said to the Times. “I wish we had been able to obstruct more. They were able to get the health care bill through. They were able to get the stimulus through. They were able to get the financial reform through. These were all major pieces of legislation, and if I would have had enough votes to stop them, I would have.”
In the other corner is President Obama, who almost took the words right out of my mouth.
Today Obama used McConnell’s comment to paint the Republican Party in general as the party of “no.”
“Obstruct more? Is that even possible?,” he said.
Obama said the Republicans have a twist on his campaign slogan, “Yes We Can.”
“These guys slogan is ‘No we can’t,'” the president said. “Clean energy? No we can’t. Health care? No we can’t. Wall Street reform? no we can’t.
OK. He was a bit more concise than I was.
Left unspoken — unasked and unanswered — in the exchange between Obama and McConnell is the second question from the previous post: “Should we?”
To pick up where the president left off, in the context of the crises both he and McConnell addressed, the question becomes: “Should we make health care available to all? Should we reign in Wall Street? Should we build an economy that works for the other 99% of us? Should we keep teachers, police officers, and fire fighters working in our communities? Should we reduce our contribution to climate change?”
That’s really question both men are answering. Neither is arguing that nothing can be done to addresses these and other challenges, or whether a “perfect” solution is possible. Both the efforts of the White House and congressional Democrats, and the obstructionism of conservatives in Congress make it clear that something can be done to addressed these problems, mitigate the damage done, and alleviate the suffering of Americans in the midst of crises.
Of course something can be done. One party worked to do as much as was thought possible, and one side worked to stop them. That’s because of how each answered the third question: “Should we?”
For progressives, the answer is clearly, “Yes, we should.”
For conservatives, the obvious answer is “No, we should not.”
It’s a more nuanced question than the first, and getting at the root of how conservatives and progressives answer it will require a couple more questions.
Crisis or Unfortunate?
In the previous post, I framed progressive and conservatives answers to the first question — “Can we?” — in terms of justice and injustice, and choice between working to challenge injustice or simply accepting some degree of injustice and allowing it to stand. The implication was that how each side answered the question depends upon whether we first even perceive injustice in the status quo. Again, Paul Rosenberg explained it well:
…By its very nature, conservatism’s tribalism, focus on narratives, attraction to comfort and acceptance of hierarchy provide a strong impetus towards a relative simplicity of political self-concept.
The exact opposite is true of progressivism. The universalist tendency means everyone is invited in, and tribalism is always distrusted to some degree or other — even the idea of establishing a progressive identity. Having a critical-empirical approach means that what a given progressive individual or group believes is highly mutable, depending on the latest research — or at least, the latest information available to them, as it fits into their pre-existing understanding of the world.
The second question fits into a similar frame, informed by those perceptions.
When we look around us — at what’s happening in our communities, our country and the world — and conditions in which some of us live, what do we see? In the final post of a serious on health care reform, I finally concluded that where one stood on health care reform depending on whether one saw lack of access to health care as an injustice or merely unfortunate.
The difference depends on what you believe concerning health care. Is it an injustice that millions of Americans have little or no access to quality, affordable health care? Or is it merely unfortunate?
It depends on whether you believe health care is a right. It’s a generalization, but not too much of one, to say that progressives — many or most — believe that health care is a right; or, more specifically, that access to quality, affordable health care is a right. This makes health care a human rights or civil rights issue. It means that a system in which millions are without access to care is an unjust system.
What if you don’t believe that health care is a right? If you don’t believe that health care is a right, then it is not a human rights or civil rights issue. It means that millions of Americans being without health care is not an injustice. It may be unfortunate, but it’s not an injustice.
What does this matter? It matters, because an injustice and a merely unfortunate circumstance add up to to different levels of urgency. An injustice, to many people, is intolerable, and thus so is any delay in delivering justice.
A similar question can be asked about about each of the challenges both McConnell and President Obama mentioned: “Is it a crisis or merely unfortunate?” Turning to the dictionary again, there are a few applicable definitions:
1. a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, esp. for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.
2. a condition of instability or danger, as in social, economic, political, or international affairs, leading to a decisive change.
3. a dramatic emotional or circumstantial upheaval in a person’s life.
It is a crisis that 18% of American workers are either unemployed or underemployed? Or is it merely unfortunate? A crisis requires decisive action sufficient to halt and reverse the undesirable trend, avert danger, correct instability, and end the upheaval crisis brings.
An unfortunate circumstance may require no action at all, as responsibility may be pinned entirely on the individual or individuals affected. In fact, the action necessitated by crisis may be an overreaction to what adds up to mere unfortunate circumstances.
Action vs. Overreaction
Conservative responses to the economic meltdown, and the ensuing problems rippling out from it make it clear that what progressives see and many Americans experience as a crisis is, from a conservative viewpoint, merely unfortunate. The most recent example is Sen. Bob Corker’s recommendation on what to do about the economy: Do nothing and wait.
And less than a month earlier, House Minority Leader John Boehner compared financial reform legislation to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.” As with McConnell, the president’s response put Boehner’s words in context of the impact the financial crisis has had on every day Americans.
Obama got in his licks on Wednesday. “That’s what he said — he compared the financial crisis to an ant,” the president told a Wisconsin crowd. “This is the same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly 8 million jobs. The same crisis that cost people their homes, their life savings.”
The Republican idea seems to be, Obama joked, that all the country needs is an “ant swatter.”
That context could have just as easily come from Boehner’s own family. Three of the minority leaders brothers lost their jobs in the recession. But he cited their job loss, and his not knowing whether they’d found jobs yet, as a sign of his “empathy” for the unemployed.
Of course, Boehner’s words only echoed many of his fellow conservatives, from Phil Gramm disissing the recession as a “mental recession” and Americans as “whiners,” to No. 2 House Republican Eric Cantor accusing the White House and congressional Democrats of “overreacting” to the economic crisis.
In their view, there is no crisis. Sure it’s unfortunate that 14.6 million Americans are unemployed, that states will have to cut hundreds of thousands more jobs, that foreclosures are over 300,000 for the 17th month, that bank repossessions of homes are at a record high, that cuts to the food stamp program are likely even as more Americans need food stamps, and especially that suicides among the unemployed are spiking in areas hard hit by the recession.
No of these things, individually or all together, amount to a crisis. Thus, the greatest danger is that we may try do too much about them. The best course of action is to do nothing.
Not that Rep. Boehner is wrong. Empathy is defined, after all, as the intellectual identification with the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of another. One empathizes with the misfortunes of others, for example. Compassion, on the other hand, is defined as feeling deep sympathy or sorrow for another’s misfortune, accompanied by the strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
To progressives, it seems a given that of course we must do something to alleviate the suffering that the financial collapse and economic downturn have the inflicted on millions of Americans. That’s the moral response to human suffering: Do something about it. Most of our complaints about the current state of our politics is that too little has been done in this regard.
Yet, the moral response to suffering and the circumstances — whether a crisis or unfortunate circumstance — depends on your point of view.
“Do something” and “Do nothing,” are statements that both reflect and answer the question, “Should we?.”
Both raise questions that demand justification: “Why?” and “Why not?”