ON DEFEATING OUR INNER THANOS
Let’s face it. We are all Thanos.
Thanos, as presented in the MCU movies,¹ was an idealist who saw a problem with the universe, overpopulation, and set out to solve that problem with a snap of his fingers.
All of us who are motivated by an idealistic vision for society have, in our deepest core, a secret dream of being able to snap our fingers and make the world match our values.
Medicare for all? Snap!
Green New Deal? Snap!
World peace and the dismantlement of nuclear weapons? Snap!
We have these dreams because the actual process for pushing our vision into a reality is arduous and fraught with obstacles, conflicts, and necessary compromises. In the end, we often find ourselves having to be satisfied with an incomplete version of our goals. Furthermore, we also find ourselves confronted with the unavoidable fact that even when we win, the mechanics involved, the practical contingencies of setting up the social structures and diverting the social resources necessary to make our vision a reality is difficult and, quite often, disruptive.
Look at Obamacare. When Senator Barack Obama, as a candidate in 2008, ran on the promise of a health care public option that would provide a low cost alternative to private insurance and help stem the skyrocketing increases we were experiencing in our premiums, many of us jumped on board. We helped get Obama elected and we fought tooth and nail to get the public option passed. In the end, we were thwarted by Joseph Lieberman. Yes. Joe freakin’ Lieberman!
We were left with Obamacare, a fragment of what we had fought so hard for. Some of us gave up the fight and turned against the Affordable Care Act. Some, like myself, held our noses and fought to pass and later to protect Obamacare from political assault. We did this because Obamacare was better than what we had, and better is…well…better. Consequently, as this relatively milquetoast policy was being put into place, we ended up having to play defense when the practical contingencies of diverting resources and doing the work of transitioning from pre-Obamacare to an Obamacare world turned out to be a lot messier than we thought. When the Obamacare exchanges melted down in 2013, one could hear the echos of a collective head smack from us supporters. It was a mess.
True, it all worked out in the end. Today, attempts to interfere in what was then a reviled policy, meet with deep, organized resistance even among former opponents of the program. We can’t, however, forget the messiness and complexity of the transition. Obamacare did not come into existence with a simple snap of the fingers.
Now, popular politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are making their mark on the presidential campaign trail and rising in the polls based on their bold policy initiatives. This is good news for activists and advocates like myself. I’ve been advocating for single-payer since the fall of the public option. I’ve also been a long standing advocate for radical environmental policy drawing from the erstwhile Democratic model of the New Deal and the Great Society. I want to see these policies realized and I will vote my ideals.
If I could snap my fingers and make it happen…
…but I can’t. And neither can Bernie.
This is something of a concern. Because if one listens to Bernie, or Warren, or any of a number of Democratic candidates, they are all acting as if they can.
The bottom line is, Obamacare was hardly a radical idea, but it came with some significant complications in its implementation. The glitchy website was only one such problem. What happens when we get single-payer and have to transition from a consumer market with a network of businesses and employees composed of millions of people and billions of dollars in assets and infrastructure into a public service market? I believe this transition is necessary and, if done well, will be of immeasurable benefit to everyone.
If done well.
If not done well, the consequences could be catastrophic for health care in the United States as well as the American economy as a whole.
So those campaigning on single-payer or the Green New Deal, or ending the forever wars, all laudable goals that I wholeheartedly support, need to do more than explain how they are going to pay for these projects. Indeed, I believe they have already adequately covered that topic. Rather, they should explain how we make the complicated transitions from the world as it is to the world that should be.
It shouldn’t just be the critics of single-payer or the Green New Deal who push the candidates. Advocates and activists should be at the forefront of demanding an explanation. After all, we’ll be the ones on the front-lines trying to make these policies work. Without a plan, without clear, workable strategies, we’ll be batting steam against the wind.
We can’t just pretend that President Bernie can just snap his fingers and…
1. For the comic book purists out there, I am aware that Thanos’ goals as presented in the movies diverged from the plot of the comic books. The movie makers turned Thanos into, essentially, an eco-terrorist.
You’re absolutely right that policy wonks and experts need to put flesh on the bones of progressive agendas. And you’re 100 per cent correct to underline the need for tough questions from activists.
However, there are two further points I would make. Firstly, people are operating in an environment where the Republican Party has gone post-truth, so it might not be the right time for technocratic responses. Secondly, Bernie Sanders is making people sit up on both sides of the Atlantic. I don’t think this is just because of his compelling agenda, I believe it is because Sanders understands what Mario Cuomo is meant to have said: “campaign in poetry, govern in prose.”