Listening to the Radicals: US History’s Lessons on Compromise and the ‘Politically Impossible’

It’s not politically possibleThe Republicans in Congress will block it… We need a bipartisan agreement…The health care industry is too powerful…There’s no reason we have to do it all now…Let’s wait until the economy’s out of recession…The public won’t support it…The "public option" is better than nothing…We have to compromise…


Such have been the reasons given in recent months, by liberal politicians and their supporters, for refusing to push for single-payer health care. Single payer, as many knowledgeable doctors, economists, and other analysts have pointed out, would save around $400 billion a year, would cover everyone in the US, and has long enjoyed the support of  55-65 percent of the US public [1]. But President Obama, in his widely-acclaimed September 9 speech to Congress, summed up liberal politicians’ basic qualm with single payer: it "would represent a radical shift" from the current system [2].  As most ordinary people in this country would agree, a radically unjust and corrupt system requires a radical shift. Yet Obama and fellow Democrats have endlessly preached to these same people about the need to compromise and to support something that’s "politically possible." 


The notion that a policy supported by nearly two-thirds of the US public is "politically impossible" seems rather paradoxical. Many liberal commentators have pointed to the demagogy of right-wing pundits, Congressional Republicans, and the health insurance industry as the key obstacle blocking genuine health care reform. Some observers, though fewer in number, have also pointed to both parties’ strong financial ties to private health insurers and pharmaceutical companies as the major reason why most Democrats oppose single payer [3]. (For a more general analysis of US politics that sheds much light on the current debate, see Thomas Ferguson’s classic study Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems [4].)


But in addition to reaffirming most politicians’ subservience to corporate power, the current health care debate raises important questions for all those who realize that some pretty radical changes are needed if we hope to someday live in a society where all have a genuine voice in their government and where human needs, not corporate profits, determine government policies—questions that are especially crucial for those who want to take personal and collective action to help their society move down that path: How can the radical changes that most of us will agree are necessary best be achieved? What is the proper role of radical rhetoric, analysis, and activism in this process? Does radicalism scare off potential supporters, as many liberals argue? Must radicals necessarily "compromise" in order to be effective? When is political compromise necessary and advisable, and when does it ultimately slow down a struggle?



Humanity’s Canaries


The issue at the core of the ongoing health care debate—whether quality health care is a fundamental human right or a commodity contingent upon personal wealth and corporate profits—is a current-day echo of other human rights debates of the past two and a half centuries. During this time span humanity has progressed to the point where few would now openly contend that some people are natural slaves, that women shouldn’t be able to vote, that imperialism is the divine right of powerful nations, or that targeting civilians with military force is a legitimate means of waging war—all of which were more or less openly accepted by large segments of US society as recently as the late nineteenth century. Most of the concepts codified in landmark documents like the 13th-15th amendments, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and the Geneva Conventions originated as very radical ideas. In fact, there are few rights today cherished as fundamental which were not dismissed as preposterous by the ruling elites, and as naïve or impossible by most sympathetic observers, when they were first proposed. Like the canaries long used in coal mines to warn miners of toxic fumes, the "radicals" themselves have usually sounded the alarm bells for humanity long before the conservatives, liberals, and apathetic bystanders have fully acknowledged the insanity and injustice of the existing order [5]. A few examples from US history illustrate this pattern.


Less than a century prior to the UN’s passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, African American slavery was tacitly accepted by most Northern whites, even those of more liberal inclinations. But while most white liberals urged restraint and argued that rapid emancipation was politically impossible, a few refused to heed such calls. Former slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass fiercely criticized "[t]hose who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation," saying that they "want crops without plowing up the ground," and "the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters" [6]. Another former slave, Harriet Tubman, famously helped over 70 slaves escape to freedom, defying both the US Constitution and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which most Northern liberals had accepted. Many slaves themselves, such as Nat Turner in 1831, launched violent revolts against their masters. A few white collaborators likewise spurned the willingness to "compromise" that they observed in most of the white Northerners of the time. Newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned the Constitution, calling it "a covenant with death" for its legalization of slavery [7]. John Brown launched a violent attack on the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal that resulted in his capture and execution.


Such agitators were widely regarded as reckless extremists by most Northern reformers, but their efforts paid off. Nat Turner’s revolt compelled the Virginia legislature to take up the debate over abolition. As one contemporary observer said of Garrison, "He will shake our nation to its center, but he will shake slavery out of it." Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry helped make the question of abolition unavoidable; in Douglass’s words, "Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy, and uncertain." The reformers had been scared of alienating mainstream public opinion, but the radicals understood "that only powerful surges of words and feelings could move white people from their complacency about the slave question." By 1860, rather than being scared off, millions of casual observers had been galvanized against the evil of slavery [8].


Most prominent intellectuals, politicians, and commentators rallied behind the United States’ takeover of Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam in the late 1890s. Anti-imperialist criticisms were present, but isolated; they came mainly from a handful of disillusioned intellectuals like Mark Twain and William James and from radical labor leaders (as well as from racist anti-annexationists afraid of "tainting" the US with Latin American or Asian peoples). Twain’s novel The Mysterious Stranger revolved around a seductive character named Satan who captivated his human audience and toward the end of the story candidly marveled at the ease with which the powerful few could manipulate the "sheep" into supporting aggressive warfare [9]. James was even more blunt, and unafraid of offending tender ears: "God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles." Prominent anarchist Emma Goldman later said "that the lives, blood, and money of the American people were used to protect the interests of the American capitalists" [10]. One would be hard-pressed to locate much disagreement with this assessment of the Spanish-American War among today’s academic historians, a group that still for the most part prides itself on its moderation and aversion to activist scholarship.


Only the radicals opposed the US entry into World War I, a brutal and unnecessary war that killed or maimed tens of millions of people and did nothing to advance the causes of democracy and justice (and indeed, helped set in motion the rise of Fascism in Europe). Just a year after the war ended, in 1919, Woodrow Wilson would nonchalantly admit that "[t]his was a commercial and industrial war. This was not a political war." But as labor historian Philip Foner points out, "For uttering this truth before and during the war as part of the fight for peace, thousands of Americans had been arrested and imprisoned as subversive, as foreign agents, and as unpatriotic" [11]. Emma Goldman and Socialist leader Eugene Debs, for example, denounced the war as being "waged for conquest and plunder" and both served substantial prison terms for daring to speak out [12]. Wilson the "Progressive" had thrust the nation into the war, in the standard fashion, with lofty talk about the need to defend democracy, and millions of liberals had followed his lead; even many prominent

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