I support many Democratic policy positions and want to see them succeed. The Affordable Care Act, in particular, is a worthy endeavor: Despite the botched rollout and a great deal of unfinished business, I want to see it prevail. Sometimes, though, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the incompetence Democrats bring to the task of selling their best ideas. The party, without a doubt, is its own worst enemy.
This is the heading under which I file Grubergate. In the protracted discussion of Jonathan Gruber’s comments about Obamacare and the stupidity of the U.S. electorate, his critics and apologists have missed the main point. This isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the health-care reform, or the mendacity or good faith of the Barack Obama administration; it’s about the Democrats’ worldview, and the party’s tireless capacity for offending potential supporters.
People have argued endlessly about whether the comments prove Obamacare was a deliberate deception of U.S. voters, or even about whether Gruber was or was not an architect of the reform — pointless semantic questions. It depends what you mean by “deception” and “architect.” Neither issue really matters.
Of course Gruber was deeply involved in the conception and design of the reform. And yes, in a certain sense, Obamacare’s advocates did deceive people about the law, by presenting it in what they judged to be the best possible light. How shocking of politicians and their advisers to do that.
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Politics is about selling. In between brutal honesty about the full consequences of any particular policy and bald-faced lies about what’s intended is a wide zone of permissible salesmanship. As it happens, I think it would be good practice — and good tactics as well — for politicians to be more forthright than they usually are about the costs and drawbacks of what they’re proposing. But the fact remains, all politicians accentuate the positive in what they’re advocating and distract attention from the disadvantages.
Here’s what counts about Gruber’s comments: His views on the stupidity of the American electorate express the party’s reflexive disdain for the very people it hopes (in all sincerity, by the way) to serve.
All salesmen sell — but some respect their customers, whereas others look down on them. Too many Democrats fall into the second camp, and too few of those are any good at disguising it. In this respect, Gruber, who calls himself a “card-carrying Democrat,” is typical of many in the party — and Democrats are different from Republicans. In their own way, to be sure, many Republicans also take a dim view of the citizenry. (Recall Romney’s 47 percent.) But the Democrats’ brand of disapproval has a particular quality that puts their party and its good ideas at a perpetual electoral disadvantage.
This syndrome of Democratic disdain, I think, has two main parts. First, liberals have an exaggerated respect for intellectual authority and technical expertise. Second, they have an unduly narrow conception of the values that are implicated in political choices. These things come together in the conviction that if you disagree with Democrats on universal health insurance or almost anything else, it can only be because you’re stupid.
Voters recognize this as insufferable arrogance and, oddly enough, they resent it. Democrats who might be asking where they went wrong in the mid-term elections — not that many of them are — ought to give this some thought. The conviction that voters are stupid, however, isn’t just bad tactics. It’s also substantively wrong.
It’s good to have policymakers with brains who know what they’re talking about. I’ve even argued that technocrats ought to have a bigger role in shaping policy. But expertise of the kind many Democrats venerate isn’t enough. It’s no guarantee of wisdom — nor of honesty.
Democrats despair, for instance, over the public’s reluctance to accept without reservation the supposedly settled science of climate change. They call disagreement on this topic a denial of science — that is, an expression of the purest ignorance. This is wrong. Action on climate change is necessary, yet the electorate’s skepticism is understandable. Contrary to what they’re told, the science isn’t settled: Enough is known to justify action, but that isn’t how the case is put. Advocates admit of no doubt, which is false; and they recoil at dissent, which is unscientific. Claiming certainty where there isn’t any does not inspire public confidence.
Voters understand that the smartest experts get things wrong. They also understand the concept of unintended consequences. A certain guardedness in the face of fast-talking experts brimming with confidence isn’t stupid; it’s sensible.
On almost any given policy question, even if all the relevant facts were beyond dispute, choices would still involve complex value judgments. This, for many Democrats, is another blind spot.
As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, liberals tend to give priority to the principles of equity (or fairness) and the avoidance of harm; most conservatives recognize those values but also give roughly equal weight to liberty, loyalty, order and sanctity (as in the sanctity of life, or the sanctity of marriage).
It isn’t obvious that either worldview is more worthy of respect than the other. Perhaps it’s morally wrong to attach great weight to loyalty, say, or sanctity. A person who doesn’t share your moral intuitions, or who attaches different weights to different values, may be a better or worse person than you are. But having conservative values doesn’t make you stupid, any more than having liberal values makes you smart.
Voters make mistakes, but I see no compelling evidence that the electorate is stupid, or lacking in collective wisdom. I see plenty of evidence to the contrary. It really shouldn’t be so hard for Democrats to muster some respect for the people whose votes they want. And if that is beyond them, they should for heaven’s sake learn to fake it.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.
© 2014, Bloomberg News