So many in the US look around right now and don’t like what they see. From the way people treat one another to their own economic situation, it feels like things are worse than they used to be, wherever you turn.
Republicans are addressing these frustrations by vowing to Make America Great Again, with Trump leading the way. Democrats desperately believe they have something to offer, but can’t figure out what exactly that is or the messaging they should use to effectively communicate it.
I just finished Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate and several passages in her conclusion struck me. Klein is writing about the climate movement, and about the need for fundamental changes to how our economy is structured if we are to have any hope of averting the impending climate crisis. And she speaks of a need to embrace the morality of the debate.
The transformative movements of the past were unafraid of the language of morality—to give the pragmatic, cost-benefit arguments a rest and speak of right and wrong, of love and indignation.
This idea applies to the current debate about healthcare raging in the US. Americans don’t want to die or go bankrupt because they can’t afford the care the need (which is why they despise the current proposed legislation). At the same time they hardly believe the government is doing its job to make sure healthcare is available and affordable (which partly explains why politicians vowing to “repeal and replace” Obamacare for the past 7 years have been so successful in recent elections).
But I’ve been impressed by the moral clarity on the left as various drafts of the Republican plan have (eventually) come to light. Many recognize that the ability to get help when you’re sick—help that doesn’t bankrupt you or fall drastically short of what you need—isn’t too much to ask. Bernie Sanders has been particularly clear about the moral depravity of the current legislation in his public statements.
Naomi Klein goes on to discuss a task that we as Democrats, who are more likely to believe that the government can and should help, face. I’ve replaced the word ecologic with healthcare to demonstrate that this point also applies so well to the debate we are currently in:
Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the [healthcare] crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.
And again, for the sake of illustration, I’ve swapped the word healthcare for climate:
All of this is why any attempt to rise to the [healthcare] challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world-views, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect.
For us to experience a system that actually cares for and about its citizens, we must rethink the foundations of our economy. Yet the idea that the wealthy should help the rest is extremely repulsive to many Americans.
But why is that so?
Do billionaire business owners work harder than factory workers or teachers or postal carriers? What about the fact that children of the wealthy are uniquely positioned to capitalize on their parents wealth? Should billionaires in the US pay less in taxes than the middle class? Should CEOs be compensated with salaries 300x higher than the average US worker? Why do we feel a need as a society to protect or defend these disparities?
I think the answer is that many of us are tired of this reality but we don’t believe the system can change. The wealthy in power are often the ones making the rules and thus feel untouchable. Naomi Klein again offers words of wisdom here about our collective mentality, and the message extends beyond the climate crisis:
The reason so many of us are inclined to answer [the] provocative question “Is the Earth F**cked?” in the affirmative is that we are afraid—and with good reason—that our political class is wholly incapable of seizing those tools and implementing those plans, since doing so involves unlearning the core tenets of the stifling free-market ideology that governed every stage of their rise to power.
And as if on cue, Bernie Sanders speaks to the same idea in the current healthcare debate (as he did throughout his campaign for president in 2016):
I get that not everyone agrees that it is the government’s duty to provide healthcare for its citizens. And I accept that argument if you are someone who actually needs that healthcare. But if you’re doing just fine—employed, insured, with savings in the bank—consider your role in this debate.
People need society to step up for them right now. And we are that society. Going it alone is not going to solve the climate crisis and it won’t solve the healthcare crisis. There is a way forward. Imagining ourselves as part of “the collective, the communal, and the commons” is the only way we are going to ensure we all have a healthy, safe, and fulfilling global community to call home.