What, after all, were and are the selling points for low taxes and minimal regulation? Partly, of course, the claim that small government is the key to great economic performance, a rising tide that raises all boats. This claim persists – because there are powerful interests that want it to persist — even though the era of neoliberal dominance has in fact been marked by so-so economic growth that hasn’t been shared with ordinary workers. The other claim, however, has been that free markets translate into personal freedom: that an unregulated market economy liberates ordinary people from the tyranny of bureaucracies. In a free market, the story goes, you don’t need to flatter your boss or the company selling you stuff, because they know you can always go to someone else. What Robin points out is that the reality of a market economy is nothing like that. In fact, the daily experience of tens of millions of Americans – especially but not only those who don’t make a lot of money – is one of constant dependence on the good will of employers and other more powerful economic players.
But the idea that free markets remove power relations from the equation is just naïve. And it’s even more naïve now than it was a few decades ago, because, as Irwin points out, large economic players are dominating more and more of the economy. It’s increasingly clear, for example, that monopsony power is depressing wages; but that’s not all it does. Concentration of hiring among a few firms, plus things like noncompete clauses and tacit collusion that reinforce their market power, don’t just reduce your wage if you’re hired. They also reduce or eliminate your options if you’re mistreated: quit because you have an abusive boss or have problems with company policy, and you may have real trouble getting a new job. But what can be done about it? Corey Robin says “socialism” – but as far as I can tell he really means social democracy: Denmark, not Venezuela. Government-mandated employee protections may restrict the ability of corporations to hire and fire, but they also shield workers from some very real forms of abuse. Unions do somewhat limit workers’ options, but they also offer an important counterweight against corporate monopsony power.
Now, there are no perfect answers to the inevitable sacrifice of some freedom that comes with living in a complex society; utopia is not on the menu. But the advocates of unrestricted corporate power and minimal worker protection have been getting away for far too long with pretending that they’re the defenders of freedom – which is not, in fact, just another word for nothing left to lose.
Fox News host Neil Cavuto tore into President Trump on Thursday, saying Trump is so focused on generating a financial boom that he’s failing to see what a “moral bust” he’s created. Cavuto made the comments just hours after Trump said in an interview with “Fox & Friends” host Ainsley Earhardt that the market would crash and everybody would be “very poor” if he was impeached. “You don’t prevent a constitutional crisis by threatening a financial one,” Cavuto said in response. He added that Trump guarantees both crises when his “very actions and words create that crisis or make people think you’re hiding one.” “Like when you say you knew nothing about payments to a stripper and a former Playboy model until you did, then explain your former lawyer Michael Cohen made those decisions until we heard on tape that you did.” He went on to call out a series of false claims the president has made during his presidency, saying that “we can’t move” on from them because more “stuff like that keeps popping up.” “I know you’ll call this fake, but the implications of what you’re doing, Mr. President, are very real,” Cavuto concludes. “You are so darned focused on promoting a financial boom that you fail to see that you are the one creating this moral bust.”
Making sure people who have pre-existing health conditions don’t get screwed by health insurance companies is very popular. So popular that a bunch of Republican senators who are freaked out about the party’s electoral prospects have introduced legislation to guarantee that no Americans may be denied coverage because of their medical history. At least that’s what the senators say it will do. Here’s the thing, though: That’s bogus. The debut of this phony bill Friday is the latest installment in Republicans’ long-running campaign to make the health care system worse for anyone who has ever been sick while loudly proclaiming they are doing the opposite. Congressional Republicans spent a good chunk of last year trying to repeal all or most of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, which already dealt with the problems of people with pre-existing conditions being shut out of health coverage or charged exorbitant rates. Against all evidence, these lawmakers constantly denied what they were doing, so we’ve seen this before.
The latest George Washington University Politics poll finds that “Democrats continue to have an advantage in the generic ballot for House elections, 45-38, and more Democrats reported being politically active — including sharing political opinions on social media, signing a petition, making donations and attending political rallies. These activism indicators are similar to the results from the May 2018 poll.” On substantive issues: “Most of those surveyed (84 percent) said it’s important to maintain a prohibition on charging sick people more for insurance. A large majority (86 percent) also said it’s important to keep the ban on denying coverage because of preexisting conditions.” In addition, the poll found that “most people (62 percent) continue to favor allowing children brought into the U.S. illegally to stay in the country. Roughly the same proportion of the public disapproves of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents (58 percent disapprove, 34 approve), and the opposition is intense (47 percent of the public disagrees strongly with child separation; only 19 percent agrees strongly).”
Let’s stop right there. The GOP has attached itself to positions that are grossly unpopular with voters — separating kids, refusing to defend the Affordable Care Act’s protection for preexisting conditions and throwing out dreamers. They demonize the positions that most voters hold as “open borders” or “socialized medicine.” Democrats have in essence won the political debate on key aspects of health care and immigration, no matter how Trump rants and raves, no matter how hysterical Sean Hannity becomes. Democrats might want to remind voters again and again that the GOP has become the party of extreme, hated policy positions. Democrats used to have to justify plans to raise taxes; now Republicans are busy trying to explain why the rich got so much tax relief while their own wages are stagnant. This has come about not because Democrats are so brilliant but because Republicans blindly followed an irrational, cruel and racist president. The voters will decide whether Republicans pay for their spinelessness.
We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been. We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.
The absolutism and radicalism of today’s Republican Party is the biggest threat to the country that McCain served and loved. It has left the United States impotent to deal with our greatest challenges — inequality, alienation, climate change and a global drift toward autocracy. Congress, as McCain said last year, is “getting nothing done.” Meanwhile, threats to American power and interests grow. I expect the Trump presidency to end poorly for Republicans, in some combination of disgrace, unpopularity and defeat. If it does, at least some Republicans will be looking for ways to reinvent their party. They will want an antidote to Trumpism, a set of ideas that manage to be conservative and anti-Trump.
They could do a lot worse than a version of McCainism. I’m well aware that McCain could be maddeningly inconsistent and flawed. He equivocated about the Confederate flag in 2000. He too often acquiesced to Mitch McConnell’s torching of Senate norms. For goodness sake, McCain decided Sarah Palin should be vice president. As he himself admitted, he should have done much more to fight Republican extremism. But the sum total of his career still represents a meaningful alternative to Trump, McConnell and the rest of today’s Republican leadership. At McCain’s best, as Barack Obama said this weekend, he displayed “a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched and sacrificed.”
What would a Republican Party more in the mold of John McCain look like? It would, for starters, stop cowing to Trump and stand up for American national security. It would investigate Russian cyberattacks and the possibility, as McCain put it, “that the president of the United States might be vulnerable to Russian extortion.” Many of McCain’s colleagues remembering him as a brave patriot are proving themselves to be neither. Second, a more McCain-like Republican Party would understand that racism is both immoral and, in the long term, politically ruinous. McCain had a multiracial family — the kind that is increasingly America’s future. Rather than scapegoat immigrants, he took risks to pass immigration reform. After Charlottesville, he declared, “White supremacists aren’t patriots, they’re traitors.”
Third, McCain believed in democracy and its vital, fragile institutions. He accepted his two haunting presidential defeats honorably. He has reportedly chosen the victors in those campaigns — Obama and George W. Bush — to deliver eulogies at his funeral. Most significantly, McCain fought for campaign-finance laws to reduce the influence of plutocrats. Fourth, McCain understood that democracy sometimes means moving on. He voted against Obamacare — a reflection of his small-government conservatism. But he also voted, crucially, against its repeal — a reflection of his small-c conservatism. In doing so, he acted as a modern-day Eisenhower, a Republican willing to accept an expansion of the safety net for the good of the country.
Finally, McCain recognized that the military wasn’t the only way that Washington could use its awesome power for good. When I interviewed him during the 2008 presidential campaign, he described his economic hero as Theodore Roosevelt — a “free-enterprise, capitalist, full-bore guy” who realized that prosperity depended on government agencies “that need to do their job as well.” The outlook led him to favor policies (albeit too sporadically) to fight climate change and expand community colleges. Imagine how different our politics could be if even some Republicans — à la T.R. — occasionally took the side of the little guy against corporate behemoths. And even if you disagreed with McCain on as many issues as I did, imagine if the Republican Party ultimately came to resemble him more than Trump.
Above all, McCain believed in American greatness — as a reality, not a slogan. He knew that the United States could play a unique role in the world, as a defender of freedom and human dignity. He also knew that the role was anything but assured. It required hard work, good choices, compromise and sacrifice. McCain’s final message for his country was a warning: Our greatness is in peril.
McCain’s passing, tragic at any time, is all the sadder now. His dedication to America’s global leadership, advocacy for human rights, steadfast opposition to despots, devotion to bipartisanship, willingness to break with his own party, insistence on putting the nation’s interest above self-interest, and, above all, his unwavering sense of right and wrong — all are desperately needed at a time when his party has embraced an amoral, narcissistic demagogue who fawns over tyrants and flirts with isolationism and protectionism and white nationalism. Trump hated McCain and insulted him at every turn because McCain was everything Trump is not — and everything that we need in our politics today but tragically lack.
There was not in my lifetime a character in politics whom I admired more than McCain. His self-effacing humor, his intolerance of partisan nonsense, his courage and his puckish delight in infuriating hacks made him a unique figure in the Senate and in the country as a whole. If people wanted to know why I was a Republican (before I left the party) I told them, “I’m a John McCain Republican.” There is no such thing any more with the passing of McCain and the descent of the GOP into right-wing populism. To say the Senate will be diminished without his presence is like saying a car is diminished by lack of an engine. We live in a time of moral dolts and intellectual frauds but also in the America that McCain so loved and strived to improve. We can grieve his absence and bemoan our loss of leadership but ultimately to honor him we must defend our magnificent democracy, insist on its goodness and guarantee it remains the planet’s last, best hope.