Why are Democrats so averse to conflict?

If they have any hope of regulating Wall Street or preserving Obamacare, liberals need to get down and dirty

Published May 29, 2013 6:44PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinI’ve never been in a real-deal, legit fight. I’ve seen a few, but I’ve never been in one myself. The ones I was witness to didn’t look particularly enjoyable, though, so it’s not like I look back regretfully on all those times I could’ve punched someone in the head. I long ago learned that I would have to make peace with my pacific nature.

All of this is to say, I empathize with the urge to duck a fight. They’re ugly things, fights. But despite what you’ve heard, there’s the personal and then there’s the political, and they’re not always one in the same. A conflict-averse person is OK; a conflict-averse politics is not.

Take Obamacare, for example. With its full implementation inching ever closer to the here and now, there’s a rising chorus of anxiety on the Left, and glee on the right, over what’s looking like a rocky transition. Time will tell, of course, but if these fears prove justified, the Democrats’ recurrent fear of conflict will be in large part to blame.

Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic has written the definitive lefty-angst piece, but although he lists five sources of worry, it’s the third — the behavior of insurance industries — that encapsulates the problem in full:

A lot [...] depends on how insurers behave. Many people working on implementation worry that they will simply seize the opportunity to raise premiums, regardless of whether it’s necessary. Maryland’s insurance commissioner has hinted that she will reject a rate hike averaging 25 percent proposed by CareFirst. But officials in many states lack that power. Then there’s the danger that insurers will simply refuse to participate in the exchanges: Aetna corporate officers have told investors that the company might limit offerings or pull out of exchanges if they can’t get sufficiently high premium increases.

This blows my mind for a few reasons. For one thing, despite American political culture being so thoroughly steeped in market fetishism and capitalist logic, it appears that the architects of Obamacare never considered the possibility that for-profit insurance firms would ignore the greater good in favor of their own bottom-line. Ya don’t say! And for another, there’s no mechanism built into the law to force these insurers to participate in the exchanges (without allowing them to gorge on raised premiums, that is).

Why such an obvious lapse in enforcement capacity? Because, of course, Obamacare was largely designed in order to piss off insurers as little as possible. In other words, the bill was intended to expand health insurance without causing a fight. Anyone familiar with the last five years of American politics can tell you it failed in the latter regard; and now the former’s not looking too hot, either. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…

If only Obamacare were the only example of liberals mistaking Matthew 5:5 for political advice. As Senator Elizabeth Warren has recently attempted to highlight, a favorite tactic of the modern Democratic Party is proving itself a massive failure: the practice of asking regulators to resolve thorny policy debates, rather than having them debated — and, yes, fought over — out in the open.

The disastrous results are most apparent when looking at the regulation of Wall Street; but the same dynamic of hand-tied regulators working away from the public stage and overrun by lobbyists and behind-the-scenes pressure from politicians, that holds true throughout the government. The disaster in West, Texas — recently exposed as likely the product of routine, off-camera influence peddling — smolders as a gruesome testament to that fact.

Corey Robin likes to say that the mission of the Left is to dispossess people of their privileges. He’s right. Justice and equality aren’t things to be asked for; they’re to be claimed. But the thing about dispossession is that it don’t come easy or without a fight. You don’t dispossess the insurance industry and Wall Street with tax credits. That’s a lesson that today’s Democrats forget — especially when it’s fundraising time.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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