The Return of the Queue

by Charles C. W. Cooke
It’s been the death knell of every progressive effort.

The American writer Bill Bryson once wrote that it was a shame that the “important experiment” of Communism had been left to the Russians when the British would have “managed it so much better.” Prepared by their reserved and ordered culture for the deprivations that come inevitably with government control, he proposed, the Brits would have accepted their fate with alacrity. Keep Calm and Carry On, and all that.

In some sense, they already had. During the stagnation and decline of the 1970s, the people of Bryson’s adopted home demonstrated an uncommon readiness to “queue patiently for indefinite periods” and to “wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance.” Surely, the reasoning went, this could be pushed ad infinitum? Surely, there was no line so long that an Englishman wouldn’t join it?

As a piece of social commentary, the basic thrust of Bryson’s claim is correct: Traditionally, the British are rather patient. Nevertheless, the notion that even a patient people will queue indefinitely is so much romantic fluff. They won’t. And for a government to ask them to do so is for that government to open itself up to defeat.

This, the polls suggest, is precisely what the Obama administration has been busy doing over the past few months. Before October of this year, conservatives trying to make the case that state intrusion led inexorably to queuing and to inefficiency were forced to rely on local failures to illustrate their point. “Do you really want your healthcare run by the DMV?” was a common refrain. “How about the Post Office?” Nowadays, there is no need for hypotheticals. Critics can just say “Obamacare.” In December of 2013, dissenters can point to the long lines, to the shoddy service, and to the reports of frustrated users waiting for hours to get onto the site — and they can say, “I told you so!” It’s been two months since the website was launched, and swathes of people remain unable even to browse plans. Isn’t this exactly what we were warned about?

If he has the time and the stomach, the president could do worse than to read the story of the 1979 British general election. The Right’s post-rationalizations notwithstanding, Mrs. Thatcher’s ascent was not primarily a sign that the British had been magically converted to the charms of privatization, free markets, tax cuts, and a strong defense, but that they were sick and tired of what socialism had done to their country and that they were reluctantly prepared to give the other side a shot. To her immense credit, Thatcher recognized this, and she made sure that her branding focused more on dissatisfaction with the status quo than on her own ideology. The Conservative party’s election-season message was pitch-perfect for the moment: Showing a snaking line of people outside an unemployment office, giant posters across the country featured three simple words: “Labour Isn’t Working.”

The great genius of the ’79 campaign was that it served as a veritable Rorschach test onto which voters could project their many grievances. The high unemployment rate was certainly a critical problem for the incumbent government, yes. But arguably more so was that years of ludicrous statism had led to trash piling up in the streets, to the dead going unburied, and to the electricity supply’s being so capriciously limited that many households enjoyed just three days of power a week. By the late 1970s, nearly every government service in Britain was wholly dysfunctional — which was a problem given that almost everything had been nationalized. When my parents were in their mid-twenties, it was not uncommon for customers to wait six months just to receive a telephone from British Telecom. Interminable queues were a way of life, even for the lucky employed. Eventually, the public revolted.

That the public will eventually rebel against government-imposed misery has long been the savior of reformers on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1980s, America’s radicals knew deep down that they had not yet won the libertarian argument with the public. Instead, they had the long lines, inefficiency, and public-sector dysfunction as shorthand for their opponents’ political shortcomings. During the 1979 energy crisis, as cars piled up outside gas stations and panic buying set in, a stunned Republican party recognized that it could just sit back and wait. Democrats, stung for a generation by a reputation for incompetence and overreach, won office again only after they had near explicitly disavowed “big government.”

It is difficult to overstate just how dangerous to the progressive agenda the rollout of Obamacare has been. “HealthCare.gov has a lot of visitors right now!” the site’s failure screen announces bluntly when the system is overloaded (which is always). “We need you to wait here so we can make sure there’s room for you.”

As of yesterday, the site quite literally asks visitors to enter a “queue.” This is the ugly language of the unemployment office or the understaffed hospital — not, suffice it to say, what advocates had hoped consumers would see.

Most disquietingly for the Left, the failure has transcended the political arena. So widely known are the site’s woes that “Obamacare” has become a lazy joke — a byword for catastrophe than merely needs to be repeated to elicit laughter. In recent weeks, it has appeared in various forms on homemade signs at football games, in late-night monologues, and in a thousand memes across the apolitical Internet. Mockery being perhaps the most difficult attack to counter, this will be a difficult blow from which to recover.

Which makes it all the more peculiar that advocates have taken to selling the long lines as a virtue — a feature, not a bug. “By GOP logic,” MSNBC’s Alex Wagner inexplicably tweeted on Monday, “black friday was a complete failure because of all those people lined up outside the stores.” Leaving to one rather large side the fact that private stores judge their successes not by the size of the queues but by the number of items that they sell, this really isn’t the pitch I’d be making. Conservatives have been warning from the outset that the federal government can’t run a system this large, that forcing people to become reliant upon exchanges run by Washington, D.C., was a mistake, and that rationing was unavoidable. They have been painting pictures of shoddy treatment and long lines. These critiques have been sharpened, not overwritten, by the rollout. What gives?

Nevertheless, pointing to the size of the backlog has been a mainstay of the progressive defense. From the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, through the Daily Kos, to the White House itself, “look at all the people trying to get onto the site!” has been the tactic du choix through launch, failure, and relaunch. If conservatives should worry that a working website will remove one weapon from their arsenal, progressives should be waking up at night quivering at the thought that their apologists are drawing attention to their movement’s historical bête noire: the queue.

Thus far, Obamacare’s principal achievement has been to kick millions of people off of plans with which they were happy while mandating that they buy replacement insurance through a government-run choke point that’s sometimes just closed entirely. I suspect that, if the website is ever truly “fixed,” the law is going to become more, not less, of a liability for the Left. Either way, it is almost certain that next time somebody suggests a vast government program as the remedy to America’s ills, it will be more than just conservative critics who say, as one, “your heart’s in the right place, but remember how Obamacare went . . . ”

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.