Senator Elizabeth Warren recently said that Republicans are paying for tax cuts with blood money.
I don’t feel like scouring the web for equally violent metaphors that are currently popular, but I feel quite comfortable saying that hers was not the most outrageous statement out there.
I take issue with her statement, and I take issue with many statements that are similar.
Senator Warren undoubtedly believes what she is saying. In fact, good friends of mine–people I trust, and who are kind and civil–have been confused as to why I take issue with her statement. After all, people will be uninsured, and therefore people will die. Ergo, Republicans are murderers. And yet, her statement is dangerous for at least three reasons.
1. It is not true
Let’s start with the policy aspect.
I quite like President Obama as a person–I trust him, even if I know he is a politician, and we disagree on policy. That said, since he is a politician, had he saved lives through Obamacare, someone in his administration would have touted those saved lives. It’s just sensible PR.
But I didn’t find any “lives saved” press releases.
Instead what I found was a very honest explanation of the fact that saving lives wasn’t the intent of the bill, and shouldn’t be how we evaluate the ACA. This may be a bit convenient for ACA supporters, but ultimately the argument is persuasive: the ACA gives people security and protection from financial ruin–not extra years of life.
But somehow Kevin Drum falls silent in the face of those who claim that republicans are murderers. Be ideologically consistent: people weren’t saved by the ACA, because that wasn’t the point. And similarly, people won’t die if it is repealed. They’ll lose care. That’s at least a fair and honest evaluation, even if I think it’s incomplete.
To make it more complete, consider the following two inconvenient details: 1) The ACA has cost America jobs. Be careful not to let your eyes roll: when people lose jobs, it has real effects on mortality. Those who claim that ACA repeal will kill people aren’t looking at both sides of the equation: if losing insurance kills people, losing a job often includes losing insurance. Those job losses shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.
The ACA isn’t a free lunch. It may be *worth* causing some jobs losses, but that isn’t to say that there *aren’t* job losses. Anyone who lost their job also lost their employer-sponsored insurance. So if losing insurance means people dying, then the ACA has its own score to settle. The ACA may have been worth it, but I don’t see many people doing a careful and honest accounting. It’s cherry picking–not to support their own side, but to dehumanize and blame the other side.
Another horse that still needs copious amounts of beating: the current research on Medicaid says that there are no significant health differences between those on Medicaid and those without it. Read that last sentence again. Your jaw should drop. Prominent leftists such as Ezra Klein have admitted that such results are troubling. My interpretation of these results: people care more about spending money on the poor than they do about actually helping the poor. If this is the case, it is entirely possible that the ACA had a similar impact: that it did some real good, it did some real harm, and that some portion of the good done was illusory.
In summary, there’s no evidence that the ACA saved people, and there’s similarly no evidence that ACA repeal will kill people. Given that the ACA harmed the economy, people likely lost jobs and insurance, so caution is warranted before deciding which people just like to see people die, and which are the true, compassionates. Finally, there is disconcerting evidence that many government programs make no difference when it comes to actual health outcomes. Taken in conjunction, this would suggest that ACA repeal won’t kill people, and that the ACA itself may have hurt more people than we thought.
Now, I’m not arguing that the AHCA is a good idea or a bad one–I can do that another time. I am arguing that it’s wrong to suggest that republicans are murderers.
And there is a responsible way for AHCA opponents to argue: say “we oppose this bill, as it will make life significantly harder for those who are losing benefits, and those losses will be paid for by the wealthy. That trade-off is not one that we support.”
2. It is not ideologically charitable
Dr. King always advocated nonviolence, and for good reason: he felt it was the right thing, to be sure, but he also knew what would happen if his protests became violent. He would lose supporters, and he would lose the argument. Violence–like violent rhetoric–is fundamentally selfish. It puts feeling catharsis above making real change. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Ultimately, everything that I cover in #1 above is political. That is, if you disagree with me on politics, you’ll probably disagree with me above as well. But I don’t think you’ll disagree with me here.
Ideological charity isn’t about being a nice person (though it’s good to be nice) and it isn’t about making the world better (though it’s good to make the world better). It’s about getting your opponents to convert to your way of thinking. As a general rule, you won’t make much progress by painting your opponents in as negative a light as possible.
Senator Warren is a powerful speaker, but she spends her time riling her base–and alienating republicans–rather than aiming for reconciliation. That’s not necessarily a virtue, of course, and speaking to one’s base is important too. But we can’t support statements like Senator Warren’s and then complain about polarization. It’s not much of a shock that the two sides can’t get along when they’re too busy demonizing the other side.
Again, I think the world would be better if we appealed to the best in the other side. But I also think it’s the pragmatic thing to do. Something about flies, honey, and vinegar.
Let’s also be clear that I am skeptical of calls to be compassionate: there are reasons to be skeptical of our empathy when our empathy is dictating our policy. Especially when our selflessness might actually be selfish.
There is a reason why politicians do this, however: they respond to incentives, and getting voters animated enough to show up on election day can be easier than changing the mind of a die-hard opponent.
In case anyone is wondering, while my current frustration is on a leftist firebrand, don’t delude yourself into thinking that this is primarily a phenomenon of the left–or that the “which side is worse” debate even matters.
3. It is dangerous, even if true.
There was a shooting recently. One of the most senior congressional republicans were shot.
For being a republican.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not trying to paint the right wing as particularly victimized, or the left wing as particularly violent. I’m suggesting that our rhetoric is overheated and irresponsible. The social media account of the shooter was filled with angry posts about Republicans trying to get entitlements. It could have just as easily been a republican ranting about immigration.
Both sides need to cool it.
Saying that people may be hurt by a bill is normal–politics is real, and it matters to real people. Civility means disagreeing fiercely, honestly, and directly–and also with kindness and compassion.
In other words, we can decry the policy of our opponents without calling them murderers.
I’ve used that phrase throughout this article intentionally, and I’d like to dig into it now. Are Republicans murderers? More importantly, did Senator Elizabeth Warren ever claim they were?
Welcome to the world of political double-talk: Senator Warren never called them murderers, she merely implied that they were intentionally killing millions in exchange for blood money. And that’s what blood money is: money paid to a contract killer. Senator Warren didn’t just say that people will die, she said that Republicans will kill them. Her argument is not that we should think of those who will be impacted by ACA repeal.
Her argument is that we should consider the other side as evil.
I suspect that there are some, probably on the left, that are still not convinced. Let me give you one last final point to think about:
In the last 20 years, there is one person who has benefitted more than anyone else by the overheated rhetoric that has been going around:
President Donald J. Trump.
And if you do some studying, the best examples in the last 100 years have names like Adolf, Joseph, and Maximillien. These men were terrors, and utilized rumor and contention the way that a sculptor uses clay.
By refusing to listen to overheated rhetoric, we rob them of their power.
Words can have plenty of meaning, and we can argue forcefully without going beyond the pale. I’ll give two practical ways to try this:
- Watch politicians’ speeches even when they don’t say things that are outrageous. Share speeches that are calm and collected and make good points. The reason why politicians say outrageous things is because they get eyeballs and clicks and eventually, votes. So give votes to people who you agree with but worsen the contentious political atmosphere.
- Relax a bit. We could all use a break from politics. We could all go for a walk, or spend more time with the people we love. I’m not asking you to stop caring, but I am asking you to maintain perspective. This stuff matters. So do your kids.
I understand your anger and frustration, and when it comes to our current president, I share it. But understand that he is the end result. Overheated rhetoric is the problem, and it only benefits the the bad guys.