On June 16, 2017, The Washington Post published an op-ed in favor of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) by Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. The article is remarkable not because its arguments are original but because it so perfectly fits the template of anti-progressive rhetoric that first emerged in opposition to the New Deal and that remains central to modern conservative thought. Although it refers to the AHCA, with a few small word changes, Needham’s op-ed could have been written in opposition to almost all major liberal reforms since the 1930s.
Needham uses a vocabulary that demonstrates the largely unnoticed staying power of anti-New Deal rhetoric. Recycling many clichés and rhetorical tricks first employed by conservative opponents of the New Deal, the article shows that the catchphrases of critics of the New Deal have become free-floating signifiers in our political culture, detached from political argument. It is a particularly egregious version of this old rhetoric and recalls Lionel Trilling’s allusion—in the context of his own critique of conservatism—to “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Conservatives have succeeded in crafting a popular narrative of freedom and its enemies, drawing on anti-New Deal rhetoric from the 1930s.
The unoriginality—not to mention the laziness—of Needham’s op-ed, and his reliance on the repetition of longstanding assumptions and rhetoric, suggest that conservatives have succeeded in crafting a popular narrative of freedom and its enemies. Critics of reform have been able to draw at will on this formula. By employing this vocabulary and narrative, they have been able to frame their opposition to reform as based on a desire to maintain and expand a liberty that is both central and precarious, always threatening to collapse under the weight of well-meaning but (in their account) deadly expansions of the welfare state. Needham’s editorial, however, comes at a time when the right’s narrative of freedom is becoming increasingly less compelling. Moreover, it suggests the importance of developing a countervailing set of keywords and stories that could be the basis of a progressive common sense.
• • •
The basic vocabulary of modern conservatism dates back further than we usually imagine—to the 1930s. At the time, conservatives were an embattled minority. Franklin Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman won every presidential election from 1932 to 1948. Indeed, historians generally describe a “New Deal order,” from Roosevelt’s first election through the 1970s, an era when a progressive consensus reigned, limiting the gains of conservatives.
Anti-New Deal conservatives lost many battles—on the Wagner Act, Social Security, minimum wages and, later, on consumer and environmental protection. But they ultimately won the broader ideological war by defining their reactionary worldview as a species of “common sense.” They did so largely by contrasting the New Deal “with its dangerous economic doctrines and threat to the American way of living,” as the Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan said in 1938, with what they called the “free enterprise system,” which they described as traditional, market-friendly, and American. Free enterprise was the answer to the question Vandenberg asked that year: “How is the Republican party to consolidate conservative sentiment and defeat the radical New Deal?” And it continues to be their answer today.
“Free enterprise” was an ambiguous phrase that acquired meaning mainly as the opposite of the New Deal. Where the New Deal stood for public spending on infrastructure and cultural institutions, free enterprise claimed to represent “frugality and thrift—words that I doubt are in the Washington dictionary,” as the presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower said on the campaign trail in 1952. Where the New Deal established principles of business regulation, free enterprisers defined such rules as “straightjackets” that harmed economic freedom and efficiency. As Henry Hazlitt, the popular conservative economics writer, claimed in 1956, “government intervention in the market economy always finally results in a worse situation than otherwise would have existed.”
The language of contemporary conservatism is at once almost entirely generic and eerily familiar.
Whereas the New Deal recognized the corporation as a powerful economic political force that potentially constrained freedom, free enterprise advocates tended to describe the business firm as nothing more than an agglomeration of individual shareholders, employees, and customers, whose liberty was quashed when corporations were stymied. Where the New Deal valorized security, free enterprise proponents claimed that guarantees of security were inconsistent with a free government and that risk represented true freedom. New Dealers, according to free enterprise critics, purveyed “something for nothing,” rather than recognizing the virtues of austerity. New Dealers recognized that vigorous national government required a system of progressive taxation but their opponents believed that “the whole history of the New Deal has been to rush to new taxes or increased taxes under almost any provocation.” Finally, free enterprise advocates claimed that the New Deal was just another form of statism that was fated to become just as much the enemy of individual rights as “‘communism,’ ‘socialism,’ ‘fascism,’ or any other form of collectivism, no matter in what form it masquerades,” as a Republican conference put it in 1935.
The free enterprise vision was binary: it was an either/or language. “The world now is divided into two camps,” wrote the former Congressman Samuel B. Pettengill in 1938. On one side were people like him, who believed that “a system of free enterprise” promoted “the dignity of the individual.” On the other side were the New Dealers, who proclaimed that “the state shall become the supreme dictator of our lives and our enterprises.” Pettengill believed—in a foreshadowing of Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing” in support of the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater—that “sooner or later all of us must make up our minds about these two camps.” Free enterprisers were always on the lookout for the governmental straw that would break the back of freedom. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the “creeping collectivism that is steadily eating away the vitalities of free enterprise,” diagnosed by former president Herbert Hoover in 1938, was expected to accelerate toward totalitarianism. For them, to borrow one of their favorite apocalyptic images, it was always “five minutes to midnight” for the free enterprise system.
These framings are still with us to this day. To contemporary conservatives, Obamacare looks like the latest example of New Deal overreach, and so it should come as no surprise to find the entire anti-New Deal vocabulary launched in opposition to it—just as it was deployed against every other attempt to extend the social safety net since World War II. For critics of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the invocation of provocative phrases designed to trigger a Pavlovian reaction—such as “bureaucrats in Washington,” “one-size-fits all solutions,” and “government takeover”—often substitutes for argument. The free enterprise argument against expansions of the welfare state, from the Social Security Act to Obamacare, has remained remarkably consistent. It stokes the same fears, speaking from the standpoint of liberty and freedom as if these were uncontested concepts, taking the federal government to be the enemy, minimizing the political power of big business, and describing even minimal levels of planning, regulation, and administration as devastating, not just to business and personal satisfaction, but to democracy itself.
• • •
Arguments against progressive reform have long been based on repetition of keywords and untested assumptions (about the virtues of austerity, the danger of slippery slopes, or the evils of “planning”). The language of Needham’s op-ed is no exception. Almost entirely generic, it is eerily familiar. Although Needham offers a few perfunctory defenses of the AHCA, the bulk of his piece, in typical free enterprise fashion, criticizes the precepts of the New Deal project, starting with the first sentence: “Anyone who thinks real compassion is found in a federal government program hasn’t spent much time at the post office.” Critics of Obamacare, like Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign, more often mentioned the Department of Motor Vehicles, but variants of this suggestion of the inherent incompetency of government go back seventy-five years. It expresses the punchline of Ronald Reagan’s joke that the “nine most terrifying words” in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Next, Needham applauds how the AHCA “would be an important step forward in taking power away from indifferent federal bureaucrats and giving states the opportunity to truly experiment in how they insure older and sicker patients.” Tarring all public services with hot button words like “bureaucrats” and “red tape,” regardless of their public purpose is an old standby as well. As Reagan said in critiquing bureaucracy at a news conference in 1986, “every place that there was government help, there was government control, Washington control.”
By casting the New Deal as a threat to the American way of life, conservatives defined their reactionary politics as “common sense.”
Needham specifically highlights the “onerous progressive mandate structure of Obamacare” alongside the general “cold bureaucracy of government programs.” Bureaucracy, for Needham, as for free enterprise advocates, is indifferent and onerous. He calls for loosening “bureaucratic regulations” in favor of “innovation and personalized products that cover only what is needed by the consumer, not what is prescribed by Washington.” What might a “personalized product” signify in the realm of health insurance: coverage for some ailments but not others? And of course there is no mention of the fact that the personalization of risk that accompanies the move to an insurance plan that flatters its users by being cast as “bespoke” will make the risks of getting sick uniquely ours as well.
The AHCA, Needham tells us, will “empower states to move out of the costly and burdensome rules and regulations of Obamacare.” He offers an ode to “significant entitlement reforms made in the House bill to Medicaid,” which translates as massive cuts to the program. The ACA’s expansion, he assures us, is “unsustainable.” This is another keyword of the free enterprise caucus, which has long rejected what one writer in 2006 called “unsustainable New Deal and Great Society relics” like “monolithic Medicaid” and “preferential treatment of labor unions.” At the New York Republican Congressman Tom Reed’s Town Hall meetings a few weeks ago, Reed repeatedly employed the word “unsustainable” to justify his opposition to ACA and other government programs that he doesn’t like.
Needham notes that keeping “Obamacare’s taxes” will be “a non-starter for a lot of conservatives.” The critique of public spending and taxation as a form of theft rather than the basis for social provision has long been at the heart of conservative thought, unless that spending was directed toward the military-industrial complex. And for this group, the wealthy taxpayer (the “maker”) long ago replaced the ordinary citizen (figured often as the forty-seven percent of the population who are “dependent on government,” in Mitt Romney’s 2012 formulation) as the central figure of the republic.
Needham also calls for “freeing the country from the regulatory burdens created by Obamacare and decades of other forms of federal meddling.” There is nothing specific here about the AHCA. Needham simply offers boilerplate, matching Donald Trump’s idea that removing two federal regulations for every one added will catalyze a burst of innovation. This is, once again, the old language of those who opposed the New Deal. “I fear we are giving up our individualism,” said a Texas minister to the Paris Lions Club in 1946. “You can’t regiment people. It makes weaklings of us if we do only as we are told.” Here, we see a hint of the gendered language of “nanny state” security as a destroyer of what a leader of the US Chamber of Commerce in 1937 called “virile America.”
Needham ends with a thousand-points-of-lightish ode to localism: “true compassion lies not in Washington, but across this country in local communities where neighbors know and care for each other.” Neighbors often pitch in to help one another and many communities offer extensive social services but these are no substitute for federal programs, state universities, public schools, municipal parks and beaches.
Repetition of claims does not make them true. Perhaps because these clichés have been echoed so often, Needham sees no need to explain why regulations are “meddling” rather than serving the public interest, why “bureaucrats” are not also public servants, why public spending is necessarily bad, why local institutions are better than federal ones for solving problems like health care.
In his brief op-ed, Needham completed what we might call a free enterprise bingo card:
- Criticize a government agency.
- Disparage bureaucrats multiple times.
- Dismiss all regulation as onerous and burdensome.
- Reframe gutting federal programs as unleashing innovation.
- Call for entitlement reform and tax cuts.
- Call federal programs you don’t like unsustainable.
Needham’s article in favor of the AHCA is exemplary, but it is not at all unusual.
What is needed is a countervailing language, one that defends public goods and the social welfare state.
Those, like Needham, who operate within a language of common sense by repeating buzzwords with no actual arguments, have an advantage, grounded in familiarity, in winning over the public. What is needed is a countervailing language, one that defends public goods and the social welfare state. Neighborliness is wonderful but the person next door cannot pay for your hip replacement or heart bypass. Washington DC is far away for many of us, but if federal mandates entitle us to marry the person we love and to work at the job we are qualified for regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexuality, then they play an important role in promoting the individual dignity that conservatives claim to prize. And we are all freer to take risks when we have federal guarantees of wages, health care, education, and a clean environment.
None of this is to romanticize the New Deal welfare state. It has often functioned to the benefit of heterosexual white men at the expense of everyone else in society. It was also inequitable in its allocation of goods (such as government-backed mortgages and “whites only” pools and schools) and entitlements (such as Social Security, which excluded the majority of black workers for the first decades of its existence). Still, it is possible for us to imagine a more just and universal welfare state that would provide a framework for everyone to thrive.
Millions of Americans benefit from government agencies and programs. But a compelling narrative about the virtues of a welfare state that helps us develop our capabilities, achieve our potential, and strengthen our democracy has not been articulated in some time. For far too long, the state has been depicted as the enemy of personal liberty, social harmony, and collective achievement. The fight against austerity and what President Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Bannon called the “deconstruction of the administrative state” should not be a purely defensive battle. We should take a page from the book of the free enterprise advocates, who promoted a persuasive narrative of freedom even when they were in the political minority. Current political efforts need to create a new common sense as compelling as the free enterprise narrative that has reigned for generations but that has devolved into a set of thoughtless catchphrases. There is every reason to believe that progressives can win over the many Americans “who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s an entitlement.” These are the words of Mitt Romney in his infamous 2012 speech to supporters in which he decried forty-seven percent of Americans for not paying taxes. Now that the free enterprise vision is exhausted morally and politically, it is time to reframe these “entitlements” as a resource for, rather than the enemy of, freedom.