The Agenda

More on Nihilism

In 2005, President Bush attempted to start a dialogue on reforming Social Security and changing the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance in an effort to place federal spending on a more sustainable footing and expand access to quality health coverage. Democrats decided that they’d prefer holding out for a more propitious political moment, when they’d have a stronger hand to offer their own solutions. Does this mean that the congressional Democrats of 2005 were nihilists? My sense is that Andrew Sullivan thinks that the answer is no, and I agree with him.

A more convincing story runs as follows:  

(1) congressional Democrats felt powerless and thus unable to constructively shape the relevant proposals,

(2) they sensed that President Bush was weak and thus vulnerable to a united front in the minority party that offered principled and consistent opposition,

(3) they didn’t trust a conservative president who seemed more interested in entrenching and extending the power of his political party, 

(4) they believed that the proposals in both domains were so wrongheaded that there was little sense in trying to tweak them at the margins — e.g., they believed both that Social Security was not really in crisis and changing the tax treatment of employer-provided health insurance would hurt key Democratic constituencies while not offering sufficient benefits as a trade-off — and

(5) differences in other domains, most prominently national security, lingering cultural mistrust of the president’s religiously-infused public rhetoric, and a frustration with what they saw as the president’s relentless partisanship, masked by what struck many as an unconvincing if not cloying and maddeningly thin veneer of bipartisan politesse, disinclined them towards cooperation.

Is it possible that Republicans — rightly or wrongly — feel roughly the same way about President Obama? Is it really true that the Democratic reform model, which was embraced in the 1990s by liberal to moderate Republicans like Nancy Kassebaum and John Chafee at a time when we knew even less than we do now about the macroeconomic impacts of implicit marginal tax rates among many other things, is the only responsible course for increasing access to health insurance? Or that a regime that marries carbon-pricing to green industrial policy is the only way to address climate change?

I’m advancing a very simple proposition here. Conservatives can be really, really wrong about everything, and centralized solutions could be the only responsible course of action across every policy domain. But is it possible that we conservatives are sincerely wrong, and that we care about more than “power and status”?

I’m trapped in this cycle of thinking that our political leaders, regardless of partisan affiliation, are people, with all the foibles and limitations that this entails. While I do think that a bottomless hunger for power and status exists in the world (we can call this “evil” as a shorthand), I know enough liberals and conservatives to suspect that something else might be at work in our domestic political conflicts. 

And while the nihilism framework makes it easier to get angry at those with whom we disagree — in some cases it can make it easier to dehumanize them, but that’s another story — I’m not sure that ratcheting up the anger level in our discourse is always the right course of action. I think that public sector unions are not a constructive force in our public life. I also know and love many members of public sector unions, and I’m convinced that they believe that they’re doing their best to better the lives of the poor and vulnerable.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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