Jonathan Gruber and progressive arrogance

(Westfield, MA) Progressives must denounce this statement by Jonathan Gruber in no uncertain terms:

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. So it’s written to do that.

In terms of risk-rated subsidies, in a law that said health people are gonna pay in — if it made explicit that healthy people are gonna pay in, sick people get money, it would not have passed. Okay — just like the … people — transperen— lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get anything to pass.

I see partial defenses from the likes of Jonathan Chait, Kevin Drum, and Sarah Kliff, but they won’t do. Calling the American people “stupid” in this context is unjust and deeply damaging. It reflects a subsidiary stream of progressive politics but a real one. When your political movement harbors discreditable views, you must denounce them or you will be associated with them. Michael Kinsley once defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” We can’t let this be a gaffe for the whole progressive movement, whatever Dr. Gruber may privately believe.

The Affordable Health Care Act is fine public policy: see the New York Times’ roundup of its positive effects. It could not pass our deeply flawed political system in the face of determined opposition without the kinds of tortured moves Gruber is describing. It is a good thing that it did pass. And it should be more popular than it is.

On the other hand, it is pretty unpopular, and that is because Americans are deeply distrustful of the government as a solution to their problems. Three reasons for their distrust are reasonable: 1) The legislative process is indeed deeply messed up, as Gruber says—but that raises questions about whether government can work for the people. 2) The sheer competence and capacity of the executive branch is questionable, witness the rollout of the ACA. And 3) progressive reformers sometimes harbor arrogant and dismissive views about most Americans. Many do not, but I have personally heard comments about the stupidity of the American voter. I think those sentiments convey to the people they describe, who are then not so keen about handing over money and power.

More broadly, I have argued that the worthy core of conservatism is humility. Actual conservatives honor that principle inconsistently, at best. But it is a valid principle, and the corresponding evil of progressivism is arrogance. I am still a progressive because I believe we can combat arrogance and do some good. But when we see it plainly, we must denounce it.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.