Will they or won't they?
That's what the nation is wondering this morning, as we await the decision of the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare, but the question I think is most important for TreeHugger readers to answer is this: How did we get here?
It's an important question because when you consider the events that had to take place in order to lead to this decision, you can gain a greater appreciation for how big things like this happen in Washington and if we're smart, we can find lessons from this story that can help achieve the big things we'd like to see happen.
Ezra Klein at the Washington Post teed up my thinking on this idea in a post earlier this week in which he ran through the steps required to create the right environment within which this decision could be made feasible.
Klein opens this piece with an anecdote about why Barack Obama had chosen David Axelrod to be run his campaigns. Klein writes that Axelrod was known for getting black candidates elected by white voters, using a process of "permission structures."
"If you think back to the 2008 campaign, you can see Axelrod slowly building this permission structure around Obama. Right before Super Tuesday, Axelrod rolled out the endorsements of Ted and Caroline Kennedy. Right before the election, he rolled out Colin Powell. The timing and nature of the endorsements were meant to make an African-American candidate with an international upbringing and the name Barack Hussein Obama into someone that Ohio steelworkers could feel comfortable voting for. If Ted Kennedy and Colin Powell can back this guy, so can you."
I was new to the term permission structures, but this reminded me of something I've written about a number of times on TreeHugger, which is the important role activists play in creating the right environment for their political goals to be achieved. Or as Klein would put it, building the permission structure needed for the ideal political outcome.
Klein explains how this idea of the permission structure isn't just useful in elections, but is also effective in regular politics:
Over the past two years, the Republican Party has slowly been building a permission structure for the five Republicans on the Supreme Court to feel comfortable doing something nobody thought they could do: Violate the existing understanding of the Commerce Clause and, in perhaps the most significant moment of judicial activism since the New Deal, overturn either all or part of the Affordable Care Act.
The first step was, perhaps, the hardest: The Republican Party had to take an official and unanimous stand against the wisdom and constitutionality of the individual mandate.
Klein's telling of the process the Republicans undertook to build this permission structure is worth-reading in its entirety, but in short, it went like this. By taking a unified stand and claiming the individual mandate was unconstitutional, the Republican Party, conservative think tanks, right-wing media and Republican activists helped create a climate of controversy about the legislation, which then pressured the mainstream media to report on the controversy, which then created a cloud of doubt among the public, which ultimately created an environment in which the right-leaning members of the Supreme Court could make a judgement that may have looked radical or outrageous if not for the contextual cover provide by permission structure.
In other words, this wouldn't have happened without all of that action. The environment or situation needed to allow this moment to happen was manufactured. And it was done very well, we should acknowledge.
"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
There's a famous quote from a senior advisor to George W. Bush, widely thought to be Karl Rove, that I think is useful to revisit here. Reported in 2004 by Ron Suskind, the senior advisor mocks Suskind for not understanding that journalism and history had changed now that Bush controlled the White House.
"The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Over the last couple years, there's been an ongoing discussion among political writers about how the Republican Party now encourages a post-modern, post-truth politics, wherein it really can feel like we're sometimes living in different realities. Societal problems can't be addressed politically because the politicians won't even agree on the reality of the situation they are claiming to want to solve. Basic facts and empirical truths are disputed and argued over, leaving nuanced policy or strategy debates almost completely unaddressed. We see this on climate, especially, but the same mess exists on a number of issues.
Karl Rove was right. They do create their own realities. We are living in one. The members of the Republican Party did not just decide individually that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional. As many people have noted, the mandate was originally a Republican idea! Many Republicans once (and probably still do) thought it was a smart policy and one of the only ways to get freeloaders to contribute to a health care system. They did not all coincidentally decide to oppose it. But the decision to oppose it was made. Republicans got in line and cooperated to create this dynamic in the US.
Love it or hate it, constitutional scholars widely agree that the individual mandate does not violate the constitution. Yet, they also predicted that the Supreme Court would strike it down. How can that be? It comes back to the current dynamic of politics in the United States.
In Politics, There Can Exist Multiple "Realities"
It should be mentioned that there can exist a number of "realities" or "environments" in the way we're using the terms. Bill McKibbon, 350.org and thousands of activists helped create an environment in the Autumn of 2011 within which President Obama felt pressure, but more importantly had political cover, to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline.
President Obama may have personally wanted to oppose it prior to those protest actions, but without the work of activists that raised public awareness about this issue, he may not have been able to politically justify opposing the pipeline as he eventually did. Additionally, had the activists done more or had a more politically diverse coalition of organizations voiced their opposition to the pipeline, Obama may have then had even greater latitude in how forcefully he opposed the plan.
This is how politics work, but for whatever reason it feels like a lesson liberals, progressives and the entire Democratic Party cannot manage to learn.
Only the Democrats can manage to lose on an issue the public largely supports, such as health care reform. And it all comes down to their absolute failure to create an environment in which they could win.
But thankfully, not all progressives are this helpless. I've written before about how environmentalists can learn from the gay rights activists. In that post I explain how the gay right movement relentlessly worked to continuously build pressure against both President Obama and the Democrats and Republican Presidential candidates. They have won major victories in reversing Don't Ask Don't Tell, chipping away at DOMA and helping push President Obama on gay marriage.
How did all of that happen? None of these would have happened at the times that they did without the movement creating the environment necessary for the key players making the decisions to act. Had the gay rights movement been silent for the last 4 years, I think it's reasonable to argue that few, if any, of their accomplishments would have happened.
But environmentalists don't work this well. We're too segmented and not laser-focused on any one issue to keep pressure on for the time required to create these scenarios in which we can actually get what we want.
The largest oil spill in the history of the country coats the Gulf coast in toxic oil, killing countless wildlife and costing billions of dollars, and environmentalists can't win any major conservation legislation or increase safety regulations.
Oil companies consistently are reaping record profits, literally becoming the largest companies in the world, and we can't even convince Congress to stop paying billions of dollars in oil subsidies.
Scientists continue to sound the alarm about a nearing tipping point for the climate and the issue is nowhere to be found on the agenda in Washington.
Messaging and creating these winning scenarios is just not what Democrats do well.
Wouldn't it be nice if that wasn't the case?
The great Ray Bradbury died recently and I happened to see this great quote on what he thought about optimism.
“I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes...
Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”
Hope? Change? Action.
I bought and still buy into the themes of "Hope" and "Change" that were the center of the '08 Obama campaign. On a number of issues, Obama has delivered some important change. But more and more, I've come to realize how important action is to maintaining hope and creating change.
Bradbury was right. Action is hope. Optimism isn't enough. It's nothing, practically speaking, without action. You make your own luck and all that, right. This is THE lesson to learn from this health care mess.
Without having first-hand knowledge, I can only assume that Democrats simply thought passing health care reform was a great accomplishment and the end of that battle. The legislation polled well, people liked what was in it and there was no need to repeatedly defend it after making it through the hard-fought campaign just to get it passed. Oh, and that question about it being unconstitutional? Well, they certainly had spoken to lawyers who I'm sure assured them it was constitutional, so the courts would surely be on their side. So for two years, there's no serious campaigning by Democrats taking place because they were just optimistic it would all work out okay.
Meanwhile, Republicans spent two years growing a coalition to continuously repeat their mantra that the health care mandate was illegal, even though, at the time, it was a ridiculous proposition. Again, Republicans had developed and supported the idea of a mandate and it was Mitt Romney's landmark achievement as Governor of Massachusetts. But none of that mattered if the controversy could hurt Obama. They grew their numbers. Recruited supporters. Encouraged arguments. Sowed doubt. Created controversy. Day-by-day they took action towards this goal.
And though I'm badly, but intentionally misinterpreting his quote, Bradbury was right. It didn't matter how good or bad what they did was. Republicans told lies about health care reform. They exaggerated. They scared people. And some even turned their backs on their own personal values and previous positions. But look what happened. Republicans are looking back on all of this and saying, "I'll be damned, it's been a good year. A worthy fight."
What do you think Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid or the DNC must be thinking now? "I'll be damned."
Where Do We Go From Here?
So what do we want to see happen in this country? What does the US and global environmental movement want to see happen? What single-issue policies are key to achieving our goals? What coalitions can be built to put pressure on those points? To again quote Bradbury, what optimal behaviors should we be taking to slow climate change or end wasteful oil subsidies or improve the health of our citizenry or protect the integrity of our food supply?
We all want change on these issues, but it won't come without action. When we look back in a year, we will want to be pleased with the sum of our work. We will want to see our hope create change through action. The Republicans continuously prove the method works. When will we do the work required to win?