Monday, July 27, 2009

Health Care for All and Moral Imperatives Confronting the Obama Administration

Interesting online articles today that I’m highlighting because all build around the notion that the serious challenges facing our nation have a moral component, and that President Obama dilutes his leadership when he ignores that component. As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog, American progressives have seriously weakened their movement by shying away from the term “moral” in political analysis.

We’ve conceded that term to those who do not have any bona fide claim to own morality, other than that they shout louder than anyone else that God is on their side and anything they do must therefore be moral. All political debates have moral underpinnings. The path a nation chooses to take regarding this or that issue—in the articles I’m citing today, regarding health care and race—is inevitably a moral path. Every political decision and every political path have strong moral components, because political decisions and the paths chosen by social groups affect human beings. And there’s no way to discuss the effects of policies on human beings without resorting to moral analysis.

This is not to say that politics has to be or should be imbued with religion. It’s entirely possible to make ethical decisions without resorting to religion at all. Our pluralistic democratic society rests on the assumption that, as a nation, we recognize some fundamental moral considerations necessary for democracy to exist, and we commit ourselves to building a society around those considerations, regardless of our different religious viewpoints or our rejection of religion altogether.

These fundamental moral considerations that ground our democratic society include respect for the differing viewpoints of different groups of people within the overall framework of moral norms that bind us together, concern for the those most excluded from social participation through economic and other forms of marginalization, and a commitment to fair play and justice. These are core values of our democratic society, and they’re moral values that demand moral attention, analysis, and commitment.

I’m pleased to see Ben Wyskida arguing at HuffPo today that the president’s media messaging about health care reform has been off-target, in part, because it has prescinded from clear language about the moral imperative of our society to provide health care for all. As Wyskida notes, Candidate Obama did a splendid job of articulating the moral imperatives that need to ground a progressive platform of social change in our society.

But President Obama is failing in this respect, due to his post-election unwillingness to articulate clear moral imperatives for social change as he brings to the table players whose primary interest is not the moral dimension of health care at all, but economic self-interest. The pragmatism of the president’s bipartisan, everyone-aboard approach undercuts the clarity and powerful appeal of his campaign rhetoric about moral imperatives, alienating his strongest supporters, the progressive community:

One of the few times during the Presidential debates that I actually staggered up out of my chair and cheered was when Candidate Obama asserted that health care is a human right. I wonder if there isn't a bolder, higher-calling messaging platform that appeals to a moral framework as well as an economic one. . . .

You can wrap in the economy - health care has always been a right, now it's a necessity. It's a moral and economic imperative.

Wyskida urges the president to get back on message, and begin once again to hammer away at the moral dimension of his understanding of health care for all:

Shift the message, from "do it now or the economy will tank" to the moral and economic imperative a can-do country has to provide first-rate health care argument.

Peter Laarman takes a very similar tack at Religion Dispatches, as he argues that special interests are not “ideas.” Laarman is addressing the Obama team’s overly generous invitation to the table of groups with a vested interest in profiting from provision of health care, an invitation issued under the guise of expanding the range of “ideas” available for discussion.

As Laarman notes,

Morally speaking, however, not all “ideas” have the same legitimacy. There is no moral equivalence between the views of disinterested analysts and public health specialists and the views, of say, medical equipment manufacturers or pharmaceutical companies or (most notoriously) big health insurance companies whose entire raison d’etre is to make money by denying care and/or by squeezing their profit out of every single medical procedure that does take place.

The “ideas” brought to the table by lobbyists for these powerful groups are not properly ideas at all; they are encapsulations of naked private interest. Moreover, this happens to be a malign private interest that militates against the moral claim—the legitimate “interest”—of tens of millions of the sick and suffering.

Once again: the tendency of this administration, now that it is in office, to treat as equal ideas all “ideas” about the path this nation must now take if it wishes to return to its democratic roots undercuts the moral imperatives on which the administration's platform for change rests. Not all ideas are equal. Not all proposals deserve the same attention, if our decisions are to be normed by the core values of our democratic society.

Some ideas are flatly antithetical to the moral basis of our society. Those that benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak militate against the core values around which we want to build our democratic society.

Under the guise of being tolerant and all-inclusive, liberal leaders in this country have historically legitimated the power of the most rapacious and inhumane groups in our society, while turning a deaf ear to progressive groups that have far less clout and ability to make their voices heard. The continued legitimatizing, under the rubric of tolerance and inclusiveness, of groups and "ideas" that are all about self-interest and not about our fundamental democratic values threatens the future of our democracy.

Moral imperatives require that we take a stand. And sometimes that stand has to be against the rich and powerful, when their goal is to profit from those who have no voice to speak for themselves.

Clarence B. Jones makes a very similar argument today in an open memo to the president at HuffPo regarding race in America. Jones calls on the president to create a national commission to address issues of race in America—forthrightly and with open public dialogue about the elephant in the living room. He thinks that if the president fails to do this, he will erode his moral capital and the credibility his progressive platform needs in order to be successful:

Despite looming issues of health care, the banking crises, Jobs Recovery Programs or Afghanistan, the giant elephant of race in America's living room remains, casting its shadow across our nation, and possibly the success of your own re-election. You run the risk of eroding your moral capital and credibility if you refuse to finally constructively find a way to tackle this issue head-on.

And I agree. The way the media have jumped on the Gates incident and exploited it, the
way many of the talk-radio thugs want to use this incident to polarize the nation and to undercut the president’s effectiveness, illustrates how far we have to go in resolving racial issues honestly in our society.

But if I were designing the guidelines for such a commission, I’d add a component challenging the African-American community to deal with Corettta Scott King’s appeal to the black community to confront its homophobia. And, yes, I'd also be all for including conversations about racism in the gay community, just as I'd want to include no-holds-barred discussions about racism throughout all sectors of American culture and society.