When Paul Ryan introduced his health care bill to the American people, he called it “An Act of Mercy.” US Representative Joe Kennedy III challenged Ryan, saying that the Republican Health Care proposal was an “act of malice.”
Most liberals and progressives implicitly understood the moral underpinnings of Kennedy’s criticism. It’s why the story was retweeted and shared millions of times on social media and has become the subject of countless memes. Here’s how the argument goes:
The Republican Health Care Bill is bad because it will leave 24 million without health insurance. It will strip away subsidies for health insurance premiums, limit Medicaid funds, and take away many of the price controls and protective regulations imposed by the ACA. 24 million people without health insurance is a bad thing. Increasing premiums for older people is a bad thing. Allowing insurance companies to offer poorer quality health insurance (often called catastrophic health insurance) rather than the high quality health insurance provided through ACA is bad. Having a higher mortality rate because fewer people have insurance is a bad thing. These things are bad because more human beings will suffer and die. Therefore it’s a bad bill.
For progressives, holding up the inevitable suffering that the Republican Health Care Bill will cause is sufficient and seems obvious. But, our arguments largely fall on deaf ears and it baffles us. How, we ask, can Republicans be so blind? How can they be so cruel, we charge? To use Kennedy’s criticism, how can they be so filled with malice?
The thing is, they aren’t blind. Republicans knew the impact of their health care bill before the CBO crunched the numbers. They knew millions would lose insurance, they knew premiums would rise, they knew the quality of insurance for poor and middle class people would decline, they knew that removing the mandate to cover pre-existing conditions would lead to pre-mature deaths, and they knew that morality rates and medical bankruptcies would rise. But they don’t see these realities as cruel. In all likelihood they see a bill that strips 24 million people of insurance as a true act of mercy.
The most important thing to remember about the conservative mindset is that most suffering is considered the result of moral failure, especially when that suffering is a result of poverty and financial hardship. Once you understand this , the basis of their immovability before pleas of compassion becomes clear.
Republicans and conservatives range from ambivalent to outright hostile about social programs aimed at alleviating poverty and inequity because in the conservative mindset, social programs bail out the poor for their bad and immoral choices. This continuous bailing out creates a reward for immoral behavior. It keeps people from facing the consequences of their moral failings.
Personal wealth, on the other hand, is a sign that you are of higher moral standing. You are wealthy because you make good moral choices. You should be rewarded for your moral superiority. When you are taxed to pay for social programs, your money is being stolen to support the lazy people who make poor choices.
Let’s play with this moral framework by looking at some of the legislative issues before Congress right now.
- 24 million people losing health insurance because of the AHCA. If people need help paying for health insurance, obviously they have made mistakes. The sooner we stop bailing them out, the sooner they will face the consequences of their poor choices. If they can’t pay for medical bills, it’s because they made poor choices. If they can only afford catastrophic health insurance, it’s because they aren’t working hard enough. If they die because they don’t have insurance, the death is acceptable because that person was facing the consequences of their poor choices.
- Cutting funding for Meals on Wheels. Obviously these seniors didn’t save enough money for retirement. It is not our responsibility to pay for the mistakes they made. If their family is not helping them, then that person did a poor job of raising their children. Hunger is the consequence of poor choices. Perhaps the experience of hunger will lead them to make better choices and then they won’t be hungry anymore. It may also shame their families into taking care of them.
- Cutting funding for free school lunch programs. These children are hungry because their parents made poor choices. If we feed these children the parents will be rewarded for their poor choices. Even worse, the children will watch their parents being rewarded for poor choices and will probably make those choices themselves as adults. When parents see their children go to bed hungry they will be shamed to start making better choices so that they can feed their children. When children understand that their hunger is their parents’ fault, they will be motivated to make better choices when they are adults. Child hunger can be a good thing.
- Tax cuts for the wealthy. Inequity in wealth is a sign that there is a moral order at work in society. It is inevitable that some people will be rich and some will be poor. This is not a problem. The moral order, in which those who make moral choices are rewarded with wealth and those who make immoral choices face poverty, is exactly as it should be. Tax structures that reduce inequity therefore are immoral. They punish the morally superior and reward the morally inferior.
- Citizens United. Wealth as a sign of moral superiority means that those who are wealthy should have the moral power to make choices about those who are poor. Any controls on that power simply punish the morally superior. Those without wealth are already morally inferior and thus are less equipped to lead. Furthermore, it is the moral right of the successful to hold the fate of those below them in their hands. Any complaints from those who are less financially secure is simply another indicator of their moral inferiority and their addiction to getting others to pay their bills for them. Nothing they say has any value. It is only a function of their poor choices and consequent immorality.
- Cutting funding for public schools. Public schools are for those who cannot pay for private schools. Those who cannot pay for private schools have made poor choices. The less money is put into public schools, the more parents will be motivated to make better choices to avoid sending their children there. Vouchers will help do that. By destabilizing funding for public education poor parents are no longer rewarded for their bad choices. We can instead direct that money to private schools and reward parents who make good choices.
By now you probably get the point. Conservatives view most legislation that aims to create equity and equality of opportunity as an immoral bandaid that allows people to keep making poor choices. As you strip away these bandaids, suffering will absolutely increase and is a sign that those who made poor choices are finally facing the consequences of their moral failing. Their suffering, even when it leads to death, is a moral cleansing necessary to create a morally just society. It is, to use Paul Ryan’s words, an act of mercy.
So what can we learn from this? Holding up human suffering as a indicator that legislation is bad is not going to move most Republican legislators to change their minds. We might as well be talking to a wall. They see their job as putting in place the mechanisms that help people face the full consequences of immoral choices. They see our complaints as an indicator of our moral inferiority and interpret our anxiety as a sign that we are resisting the moral responsibility to face the consequences of our poor choices.
How then do we lobby Republican legislators about legislation that progressives and liberals find morally abhorrent? At this point, I believe it is about changing the minds of the American people, not Republican legislators or their base. They have become so extreme that reasonable engagement is not an option. The only thing that moves them is the fear of losing political power.
We have to find a way to damage the Republican brand so that voting Republican comes to mean voting for cruelty and selfishness. They are, unwittingly, providing a lot of fodder for us to do this if we have the courage to really play that hand. Republicans are seriously overplaying their hand and deeply wounding those who voted for them. They could face intensive anger at the polls. If we can channel that anger into a moral framework that helps the American people truly understand what malice is and what mercy is, we have a chance to bring the current political nightmare to an end.
Most Americans are neither far-right or far-left. They are somewhere in the middle. In that middle, fairness is important. Kindness is important. Caring for each other is valued. Human suffering is our shared responsibility. Only by inviting ordinary Americans into this moral framework can Republican cruelty be unmasked for what it is and stripped of its political power.