interesting times

The Triumph of Obama’s Long Game

Barack Obama in 2008. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This was a great week for conservatism.

I know, I know. That word — as it has been reverse engineered by the modern GOP — no longer means in America what it once meant across the West, and I should probably stop pretending otherwise. I’m told repeatedly, and understandably, that my support for the long Anglo-American tradition of conservative political thought is quixotic, perverse, and largely counterproductive. Pragmatism, moderation, incrementalism, reform: These might be conservative virtues in principle, but in practice, the American right junked them years ago. I’m told I should admit that, in the current American context, I’m a de facto, Obama-loving leftist. To cheer the collapse of the brutal repeal of Obamacare has not an inkling of conservatism about it.

So let me explain a little why I found this past week so encouraging. It represented, in my view, the triumph of reality over ideology. And conservatism — from Burke and Hume to Hayek and Oakeshott — has always been, at its core, a critique of ideology in favor of reality. The world is as it is, the conservative argues. Any attempt to drastically overhaul it, to impose a utopian vision onto a messy, evolving human landscape will not just fail, it will likely make things worse. To pretend that the present exists for no good reason — and can be repealed or transformed in an instant — is a formula for ruin. The leftist vision of perfect “social justice” is therefore as illusory and as pernicious as the reactionary’s dream of restoring a mythical past. And the great virtue of America’s deeply conservative Constitution is that it throws so many obstacles in the way of radical, ideological change — to the left or right — that it limits the harm that humans can do to themselves in moments of passion or certainty or in search of ideological perfection.

The utopia the GOP wanted was to return health care to the free market, where choice would be maximized and costs curtailed by consumers. You can see the ideological appeal. But health care is a product unlike any other, and that freewheeling vision had already been decisively rejected by a majority of Americans. Obamacare itself was, in fact, a response to that shift in opinion — and the president was reelected after passing it. The personal bankruptcies, the soaring costs of treating the uninsured and very sick, the impossibility of getting insured with a preexisting condition: A huge majority hated that status quo ante. In the end, there was no going back.

And morally, American culture had already dispensed with the cruelty of allowing our fellow citizens to suffer and die because of a lack of resources. Ronald Reagan was in some ways the first to concede this. In 1986, he signed the law that made it illegal for hospitals to turn away the very sick if they could not pay for treatment. Once that core concession was made by the icon of the conservative movement — that the sick should always be treated in extremis — the logic of universal coverage was unstoppable.

And if universal coverage was unstoppable, the most conservative response to that change was … something very much like Obamacare. It was an incremental reform, it kept the private insurance market, and it attempted to create as big a risk pool as possible. No one argued it was perfect. But it adapted ideas from left and right into a plausible, workable synthesis. And yet the GOP — still fixated on abstract ideology — pretended none of this had happened. Caught in the vortex of their own talk-radio fantasies, they opted to repeal and replace 21st-century reality. And — surprise! — reality won.

Maybe if they’d made a case that this was essential unless we wanted the country to go bankrupt, they might have had a chance. But when they combined it with massive tax cuts for the rich, they were never going to win, except by diktat. So they tried diktat. They lied about their bill; they attempted to ram it through quickly; they suppressed public hearings and any semblance of a deliberative process; they all but ended senatorial debate; they made no compelling public case for the bill (because there was none); they passed it in the House before even scoring it; they tried to force it through by a reconciliation process that was never designed for such a thing.

They tried everything, in other words — led by one of the wiliest Senate Majority Leaders in modern times, and a president with a cultlike hold on his own voters. They controlled the House and Senate and had a chief executive willing to sign literally anything he could call a victory. And they still failed. Rejoice!

Obama, in fact, was the conservative in all this — nudging and amending, shaping and finessing as American society evolved — while the GOP flamed out in a reactionary dead end. But Obama’s conservatism has nonetheless brought about an epochal, defining achievement for American liberalism: a robust American consensus in favor of universal health insurance. Yes, he could.

It is hard to overstate the salience of this victory in Obama’s long, long game — and perhaps we are still too close to events to see it as clearly as we should. But here it is: a testament to the skills and vision and tenacity of our greatest living president, whose political shadow completely eclipses the monstrous, ridiculous fool who succeeded him. Like the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, we’ve seen this story many times before in the last eight and a half years. And we also know the ending.

Meep, meep.

Speaking of ideology versus reality, there is, it seems to me, a parallel on the left. That is the current attempt to deny the profound natural differences between men and women, and to assert, with a straight and usually angry face, that gender is in no way rooted in sex, and that sex is in no way rooted in biology. This unscientific product of misandrist feminism and confused transgenderism is striding through the culture, and close to no one in the elite is prepared to resist it.

And so we have the establishment of gender-neutral birth certificates in Canada; and, in England, that lovely old phrase, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” is being removed from announcements on the Tube, for fear someone might feel left out. We have dozens of new pronouns in colleges (for all those genders that have suddenly sprung into existence), and biological males competing in all-female high-school athletic teams (guess who wins at track). We also have irreversible genital alteration for minors, who believe, as many kids often have, that they are girls in boys’ bodies and vice versa. We have elections about who gets to go to which bathroom.

Worse, we have constant admonitions against those who actually conform, as most human beings always have, to the general gender rule. Boys who behave like boys have always behaved are suddenly displaying “toxic masculinity” and must be reprogrammed from the get-go. Girls who like pink and play with Barbies are somehow not fully female until they’ve seen the recent Wonder Woman movie or absorbed the stunning and brave decision to make Doctor Who a woman. We have gone from rightly defending the minority to wrongly problematizing the majority. It should surprise no one that, at some point, the majority will find all of this, as Josh Barro recently explained, “annoying.”

I say this as someone happily in the minority — and who believes strongly in the right to subvert or adapt traditional gender roles. It’s a free country, after all. But you can’t subvert something that you simultaneously argue doesn’t exist. And this strikes me as the core contradiction of ideological transgenderism. By severing the link between sex and gender completely, it abolishes the core natural framework without which the transgender experience makes no sense at all. It’s also a subtle, if unintentional, attack on homosexuality. Most homosexuals are strongly attached to their own gender and attracted to traditional, natural expressions of it. That’s what makes us gay, for heaven’s sake. And that’s one reason the entire notion of a common “LGBT” identity is so misleading. How can a single identity comprise both the abolition of gender and at the same time its celebration?

Exceptions, in other words, need a rule to exist. Abolish gender’s roots in biology and sex — and you abolish gay people and transgender people as well. Yes, there’s a range of gender expression among those of the same sex. But it’s still tethered among most to the forces of chromosomes and hormones that make us irreducibly male and female. Nature can be interpreted; it can even be played with; but it cannot be abolished. After all, how can you be “queer” if there is no such thing as “normal”?

Transgender people exist and should be treated with absolutely the same human respect, decency, and civil equality as anyone else. But they don’t disprove traditional notions of gender as such — which have existed in all times, places, and cultures in human history and prehistory, and are rooted deeply in evolutionary biology and reproductive strategy. Intersex people exist and, in my view, should not be genitally altered or “fixed” without their adult consent. But they do not somehow negate the overwhelming majority who have no such gender or sexual ambiguity. Gay people exist and should not be coerced into behaving in ways they find alien to their being. But the entire society does not need to be overhauled in order to make gay or trans experience central to it. Inclusion, yes. Revolution, no.

The added problem with this war on nature is the backlash it inevitably incurs. There’s a reason so many working-class men find it hard to vote for Democrats any more. And there’s a reason why a majority of white women last year voted for a man who boasted of sexual assault if the alternative was a triumph for contemporary left-feminism. You can’t assault the core identity of most people’s lives and then expect them to vote for you. As a Trump supporter in Colorado just told a reporter from The New Yorker: “I’ve never been this emotionally invested in a political leader in my life. The more they hate him, the more I want him to succeed. Because what they hate about him is what they hate about me.” And one of the core things that liberals hate about Trump voters is their expression of their gender.

One of the features you most associate with creeping authoritarianism is the criminalization of certain political positions. Is anything more anathema to a liberal democracy? If Trump were to suggest it, can you imagine the reaction?

And yet it’s apparently fine with a hefty plurality of the Senate and House. I’m referring to the remarkable bill introduced into the Congress earlier this year — with 237 sponsors and co-sponsors in the House and 43 in the Senate — which the ACLU and the Intercept have just brought to light. It’s a remarkably bipartisan effort, backed by Chuck Schumer and Ted Cruz, among many solid Trump-resisting Democrats and hard-line Republicans. And it would actually impose civil and criminal penalties on American citizens for backing or joining any international boycott of Israel because of its settlement activities. There are even penalties for simply inquiring about such a boycott. And they’re not messing around. The minimum civil penalty would be $250,000 and the maximum criminal penalty $1 million and 20 years in prison. Up to 20 years in prison for opposing the policies of a foreign government and doing something about it! And, yes, the Senate Minority Leader is leading the charge.

Look: I’m not in favor of boycotting Israel when we don’t boycott, say, Saudi Arabia. But seriously: making it illegal? Every now and again, you just have to sit back and admire the extraordinary skills of the Greater Israel lobby. You’ve never heard of this bill, and I hadn’t either. But that is partly the point. AIPAC doesn’t want the attention — writers who notice this attempted assault on a free society will be tarred as anti-Semites (go ahead, it wouldn’t be the first time) and politicians who resist it will see their careers suddenly stalled. I doubt a single sponsor of this bill will go on the record to oppose it (so far, none has). That’s how complete the grip of AIPAC is. And pointing out this special interest’s distortion of democracy is not the equivalent of bigotry. It’s simply a defense of our democratic way of life.

See you next Friday.

The Triumph of Obama’s Long Game