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Taking Ideological Differences Seriously

The latest intra-progressive dustup over health care reform displays a couple of pretty important potential fault lines within the American center-left. One has to do with political strategy, and the role of the Democratic Party and the presidency in promoting progressive policy goals and social movements. Like others engaging in the traditional year-end essays, I'll be writing about that subject extensively in the coming days.

But the other potential fault line is ideological, and is sometimes hard to discern because it extends across a variety of issues. To put it simply, and perhaps over-simply, on a variety of fronts (most notably financial restructuring and health care reform, but arguably on climate change as well), the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. This approach was a hallmark of the so-called Clintonian, "New Democrat" movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as "the Third Way," which often defended the use of private means for public ends. (It's also arguably central to the American liberal tradition going back to Woodrow Wilson, and is even evident in parts of the New Deal and Great Society initiatives alongside elements of the "social democratic" tradition, which is characterized by support for publicly operated programs in key areas).

To be clear, this is not the same as the conservative "privatization" strategy, which simply devolves public responsibilities to private entities without much in the way of regulation. In education policy, to cite one example, New Democrats (and the Obama administration) have championed charter public schools, which are highly regulated but privately operated schools that receive public funds in exchange for successful performance of publicly-defined tasks. Conservatives have typically called for private-school vouchers, which simply shift public funds to private schools more or less unconditionally, on the theory that they know best how to educate children.

Now clear as this distinction seems to "New Democrats," there are a considerable number of progressives who think it's largely a distinction without a difference, in education policy and elsewhere. And we are seeing that fundamental divergence on opinion on other, more prominent issues right now. On the financial front, the Obama administration reflexively pursued a strategy of regulation and subsidies for the financial sector, without modifying the fundamental nature of financial institutions, even as critics on the left argued for nationalization (at least temporarily) of key financial functions. At the more popular level, critics of TARP from the left joined critics of TARP from the right in deploring "bailouts" of failed financial institutions, even though the two groups of critics held vastly different views of the right alternative course of action.

Similarly in the health care reform debate, the Obama administration pursued legislation that utilized regulated and subsidized private for-profit health insurers to achieve universal health coverage. This approach was inherently flawed to "single-payer" advocates on the left, who strongly believe that private for-profit health insurers are the main problem in the U.S. health care system. The difference was for a long time papered over by the cleverly devised "public option," which was acceptable to many New Democrat types as a way of ensuring robust competition among private insurers, and which became crucial to single-payer advocates who viewed it as a way to gradually introduce a superior, publicly-operated form of health insurance to those not covered by existing public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. (That's why the effort to substitute a Medicare buy-in for the public option, which Joe Lieberman killed this week, received such a strong positive response from many progressives whose ultimate goal is an expansion of Medicare-style coverage to all Americans).

Now that the public option compromise is apparently no longer on the table, and there's no Medicare buy-in to offer single-payer advocates an alternative path to the kind of system they favor, it's hardly surprising that some progressives have gone into open opposition, and are using the kind of outraged and categorical language deployed by Marcy Wheeler of Firedoglake yesterday.  As with the financial issue, there's now a tactical alliance between conservative critics of "ObamaCare," who view the regulation and subsidization of private health insurers as "socialism," and progressive critics of the legislation who view the same features as representing "neo-feudalism."

To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama's critics to the right say he's engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can't both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.

For those of us whose primary interest is progressive unity and political success for the Democratic Party, it's very tempting to downplay or even ignore this potential fault-line and the left-right convergence it makes possible. It's also easy to dismiss critics-from-the-left of Obama as people primarily interested in long-range movement-building rather than short-term political success; that's true for some of them. But sorting out these differences in ideology and perspective is, in my opinion, essential to the progressive political project. And with a rejuvenated and increasingly radical Right's hounds baying and sniffing at the doors of the Capitol, we don't have the time or energy to spare in dialogues of the deaf wherein we call each other names while getting ready for the elections of 2010 and 2012.

UPDATE: After discussing this post with several friends, I should be very clear about my motives here. I am not trying to promote an ideological fight within the Democratic Party or the progressive coalition, and don't want to exaggerate ideological differences, either. But ideology, however muddled, is part of what makes most politically active people tick. And if we don't talk about it--and about differences in strategic thinking as well, which should be the subject of future discussions--then all we are left with to explain our differences on this issue or that is questions of character. And anyone paying attention must recognize there's far too much of that going on. "Progressive pragmatists"--the camp with which I most often personally identify, as it happens--often treat "the Left" condescendingly as immature and impractical people who don't understand how things get done. Meanwhile, people on "the Left" often treat "pragmatists" as either politically gutless or personally corrupt. This is what happens when you don't take seriously other people's ideological and strategic underpinnings; whatever you gain in ignoring or minimizing differences in perspective or point of view is lost in mutual respect. Sure, the character attacks on both sides are sometimes accurate, but nobody should assume that in any particular case without further examination of each others' ideological and strategic views. That examination is long past due.

This item is crossposted from The Democratic Strategist, where Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor.