Jonathan Gruber — the source of more smoking guns than the battle of Gettysburg — recently appeared before a hostile House committee. The good professor, you might recall, is an MIT economist who played a significant (and paid) role in producing and defending the Affordable Care Act. He also later admitted, in an astonishing variety of settings, that the law was written in a “tortured way” to hide tax increases and other flaws. “Lack of transparency,” he cheerfully conceded, “is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”
At the hearing, some Republicans seemed oddly focused on Gruber’s profit motive, as if a real scandal must involve venality. Democrats attempted to salvage the credibility of Obamacare by throwing the witness to the wolves. Rep. Elijah Cummings declared Gruber’s past statements “disrespectful,” “insulting, “stupid” and “absolutely stupid.”
But the problem for Democrats is that Gruber is not stupid. By all accounts, he is knowledgeable, candid and willing, on occasion, to criticize the Obama administration — an advocate for Obamacare without being a shill. But he is perfectly representative of a certain approach to politics that is common in academic circles, influential in modern liberalism and destructive to the Democratic Party.
“My own inexcusable arrogance,” Gruber told the committee, “is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act.” Oh, yes it is.
Many academic liberals have fully internalized the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” theory, given vivid expression by Thomas Frank. In its simplified version (and there is seldom any other kind), this is the argument that people who are suffering economic inequality should naturally vote Democratic. But they often get distracted by the shiny objects of the culture war and tricked into resentment against liberal elites.
It’s a very short step from this belief to its more muscular corollary: Liberal elites (through liberal politicians) should constructively mislead Americans. The task of actual persuasion is pretty nigh hopeless, given the unfortunate “stupidity of the American voter or whatever.” So the people must be given what they need, even if they don’t actually want it.
This involves a very high regard for policy experts, and a very low opinion of the political profession. Gruber clearly views his own world of policy as a place of idealism and integrity. Politics, in contrast, is a realm where “lack of transparency” and “mislabeling” are sad necessities to persuade low-information voters to pursue their own interests. Purposely employing such tactics in an academic paper, for example, would be a scandal (and presumably a firing offense) at MIT. But liberal academics expect politicians to have greater cunning and lower standards. In fact, academics depend upon the rougher talents of politicians to turn their ideas into reality.
Politics, in this view, is the grubby business of winning so the proper technocrats can be in charge of large, complex systems. This assumes that academic and bureaucratic elites know how to run the world. It also relegates politicians to the job of doing their blocking and tackling, even if it involves deception. The moral goal justifies it all. “Look,” said Gruber, “I wish … we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”
This reflects a deeper tension within progressivism — working itself out for more than a century — between a belief in democracy and a faith in expertise. Progressives originally assumed the people would choose to be ruled by experts — that more direct democracy would lead to more professional administration. But that now seems politically naive. So progressive elites are left believing that the people are stupid and must be managed, like everything else, in the public interest.
The success of this kind of progressivism depends on not being too obvious about it. Which is where Obamacare has utterly failed. With its self-evidently false promises — you can keep your current health care plan — and its public displays of incompetence, the system has become a symbol of progressive arrogance. This perception has helped spark a massive, sustained populist reaction, contributing to dramatic GOP gains in Congress and state legislatures.
This does not mean that Obamacare will be easily undone. But it does provide conservatives an opportunity to present a different, more idealistic vision of government: one that enables and empowers, not misleads and controls.
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to email@example.com.