Maybe America's ruling class isn't frightened enough to create health reform.

How to fix health policy.
Feb. 25 2010 4:41 PM

Health Summit: The Fear Deficit

Maybe America's ruling class isn't frightened enough to create health reform.

Click here for a glossary of health reform jargon and slogans.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Click here and here for complete video of the seven-hour Blair House meeting, and here, here, here, and here for the complete transcript.

Andrew Carnegie. Click image to expand.
Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie

Watching Republicans at the Blair House summit steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the urgent need to tighten regulation of health insurance and to extend coverage to the uninsured, I found myself indulging a gloomy thought. What this country needs is a more fearful ruling class.

Advertisement

Starting late in the 19th century and ending late in the 20th, a hugely important engine of social progress was fear on the part of the nation's leaders that economic inequality, if it were allowed to become too severe, would lead to class warfare and maybe the radical overthrow of the U.S. government. That's why Andrew Carnegie founded his libraries; it's why the states ratified the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, creating the modern progressive income tax; it's why Franklin Roosevelt created the New Deal ("The failure of Republican leaders to solve our troubles," Roosevelt said when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1932, "may degenerate into unreasoning radicalism"); it's why Harvard President James Bryant Conant moved Harvard to a merit-based system of admissions subsequently adopted by other universities; and it's why every Republican president from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan pursued domestic economic and social policies only somewhat less liberal than those favored by Democrats.

Starting in the 1960s, that fear began to slacken. Especially in the South, civil rights legislation drove the working class (by which I mean, of course, the white working class) away from liberalism. For a while, the George Wallace cohort retained its economic populism, but, eventually, that leaked away. Starting in the 1980s, economic inequality began to grow. Evidence has lately been accumulating that conservative government policies favoring the rich played a much more important role in creating that inequality than was previously thought. Nevertheless, the working class—or at least a sizable swath of it—clung to the conviction that the answer was smaller government and lower taxes for the rich. That portion of the working class which still directed its anger at private wealth, profit-driven corporations, and the politicians who serve them no longer inspired fear of economic revolt. Maybe it was because communism was dead. Maybe it was because the rise of meritocracy blurred class distinctions. For whatever reason, the worse things got for those at the bottom, the less Washington felt it necessary to appease their economic interests. Instead, Washington frets about the Tea Partiers, a working-class movement that directs its rage not against health insurance companies but against health insurance reform.

No wonder Republicans at the Blair House meeting remain stonily unresponsive to repeated pleas from President Obama and congressional Democrats that Washington enact policies to do nothing more radical than broaden and diversify private-insurance pools. (America's health care, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted, is "the finest in the world." Tell it to the World Health Organization.) They aren't afraid that their indifference will provoke a revolution. They aren't even afraid it will provoke creation of a "public option" government health insurance program. I'm starting to think we won't get comprehensive health reform until a demagogue emerges on the left who is as theatrical and crudely manipulative as Huey Long (or Glenn Beck). Instead of holding a meeting at Blair House, maybe Democrats should be auditioning dissolute and opportunistic talk-radio hosts to outflank them.

AP Video: Health Care Summit

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.