Politics & Policy

The Public Option

In rushing health-care reform, Obama has pushed democracy to the side.

In the last few weeks, the debate over health care has taken an angry and contentious turn by any standard. Town-hall meetings and public rallies, not known for their docile tenor under normal circumstances, have been punctuated by unusually spirited opposition to Democrat proposals for sweeping reform. What began as a few isolated outbursts of spontaneous frustration has become commonplace at public gatherings, prompting many Democrats to cancel appearances and limit their communications to press releases. While Obama’s administration continues to claim broad and deep public support for its legislative efforts, poll after poll indicates growing suspicion that Democrat-authored proposals are fiscally reckless and, despite repeated protests to the contrary, designed to nationalize the health-care industry as a whole.

In response to the unwelcome rumblings of dissent, leading Democrats have attempted to squash public debate under the sheer weight of rhetorical condescension. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has mocked town-hall attendees’ “manufactured anger” and has called them the “Brooks Brothers Brigade,” following California senator Barbara Boxer’s claim that they are too “well-dressed” to be true grassroots activists. The Democrat National Committee has referred to these outspoken critics of Obamacare as “mobs.” Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, speaker of the House and House majority leader respectively, co-authored an op-ed in USA Today referring to such clamorous objection as “un-American.” The White House has established a “Reality Check” website that supposedly debunks any and all challenges to their policy positions, suggesting that dissent is the product of either dishonesty or delusion — no intelligent or sincere American could possibly take issue with the only rational avenue available for serious reform.

However uncivil some of the town-hall interruptions have been, the palpable irritation on the part of so many disgruntled citizens is not only an expression of political opposition to a particular policy but a bubbling over of resentment at the feeling of general powerlessness. At every turn, the Obama administration has attempted to fast-track an immensely complex piece of legislation, ensuring that a transparent national debate is impossible and that even our legislators remain ignorant of the details of any proposal. The real question here is not whether these protests are “organized” or even disruptive — the Democrats used union-funded political organizations in 2005 to stage public protests, orchestrate “grassroots” political advocacy, and televise professionally produced advertisements to undermine President Bush’s platform for Social Security reform. Rather, the point is the audacity of disagreement. Obama has tried to create the illusion that debate is dangerous, given the exigency of the current crisis, and unnecessary, given the solid public consensus.

Unfortunately, the contempt for public debate is one of the hallmarks of Obama’s technocratic approach to politics — in place of a healthy and democratic deference to public opinion, we get the assurance of expertise that comes with a bevy of special-issue czars. The key ingredients of President Obama’s election victory were technocratic competence and a therapeutic populism — his Ivy League intellect would be the key to solving our average-Joe problems. Nevertheless, it’s not at all clear that the technocratic conception of politics is compatible with a robust deliberative democracy. And Obama’s technocratic side is winning out.

Obama’s populism is based on the satisfaction of the will of the people — he decries, however insincerely or inconsistently, the undermining of general consent by the overrepresentation of special interests or of the wealthy. However, Obama’s conception of techno-politics is based on the embrace of a kind of techno-aristocracy — hyper-educated elites with specialized political or scientific expertise are singled out to manage the benighted rest of us. The conspicuous contradiction embedded within Obama’s political program is between his populist embrace of consent and his technocratic dismissal of it: The former presumes the prudence of common sense; the latter rejects it as radically untutored.

Examples of this tension are numerous. In his March 9, 2009 “Executive Order Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells,” President Obama equated President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell experimentation to “limitations on scientific inquiry itself.” Similarly, in the remarks Obama delivered to the press announcing the executive order, he described his revision of his predecessor’s position as a means for “protecting free and open inquiry,” implying that the moral objections shared by so many Americans were not only the product of irrational superstition but tantamount to a wholesale rejection of the quest for truth.

It has also become impossible to deny that Democrats deliberately concealed the jurisprudential philosophy that clearly guided Sonia Sotomayor’s 18 years on the bench. While this made political sense, given that a considerable portion of the public would probably find her rejection of judicial objectivity unpalatable, it was democratically dubious. As was the goal underlying Sotomayor’s nomination in the first place: To increase the role of the judiciary in making policy while decreasing that of the people’s elected representatives — an updated paternalism that seeks to protect the people from themselves.

Finally, despite a burgeoning distrust of both the economic and environmental defensibility of the cap-and-trade bill, Obama has proceeded swiftly, pointing to non-existent mandates from the scientific community and the public at large. Again, it would be edifying to the American public if their representatives in the House slowed the frenetic pace of this legislation and drew attention to the disputes over the bill and the science behind it. However, the tripartite formula for technocratic politics — the illusion of immanent crisis, the pretense of public consensus, and the suppression of open debate — has prevented a serious and non-ideological dialogue from emerging.

The real danger of Obama’s technocratic administration lies in its habit of tendentiously recasting serious moral and political debates as misguided arguments about plainly observable empirical facts. Such intellectual self-indulgence preemptively labels all disagreement as uninformed or nefarious and renders democratic process — and all those that demand it — tiresome and frustrating. This transforms every nuanced policy debate into a choice between the light of reason and the darkness of ignorance; this heavy-handed dogmatism inevitably creates a cultural cleavage between the chosen bearers of truth and those who stupidly refuse the gifts bestowed by progress. Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus recently remarked that Democratic health-care reform was stamped with a “sense of inevitability,” but there are still plenty of Americans with real anger about their “manufactured” consent — for these citizens, the conclusion of this political trial is not yet foregone. Whether or not Republicans can defeat Obama’s health-care reforms, they owe their constituents a genuine national debate that does justice to the public option that matters most — the one for democracy.

– Ivan Kenneally is an assistant professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. He is currently writing on technocracy and American politics.

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