Lost Causes and Hope

You have to give political conservatives credit when it comes to framing issues: how language is used to convey messages and reinforce our perceptions of the world.  Consider the following Republican frames: climate change is a hoax; universal health care is socialism (or worse, communism); what is good for Wall Street is good for Main Street; raising the minimum wage is bad for the economy; huge federal deficits are bad for the economy (when Democrats are in power) and huge federal deficits don’t hurt the economy (when Republicans are in power); there is massive voter fraud occurring in the U.S.; and the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  Polls consistently show that about 70% of political conservatives believe these frames.

Conspiracy theories are also used to frame issues and sway supporters, for example: COVID19 is a Chinese biological weapon; there is an international Jewish cartel that secretly rules the world; Joe Scarborough killed one of his staffers when he was a senator; windmills cause cancer; and Hillary Clinton was the mastermind behind a human trafficking and child sex ring.  It doesn’t help that the leader of the Republican Party, President Donald Trump, supports these conspiracies or that Republican politicians won’t/don’t debunk them.  Not surprisingly, about 30% of political conservatives believe some of these conspiracies.

While it is easy to debunk many of these beliefs (for example, cities and counties that have increased the minimum wage have experienced economic growth), it is difficult to get people to part with them.  As a result, although our country is strongly divided on many issues, if we could find common ground, we might be able to resolve many of these issues to the benefit of the majority of Americans.  However, what strikes me the most about the beliefs that political conservatives cling to, have, over the course of history, turned out to be a lost cause – fundamentally wrong based on the evidence and, over time, not representative of the values of most members of our society.  When we look back at history, it is liberal causes and actions that have helped make the United States a great country.

For example, consider slavery.  Even Thomas Jefferson knew an economy based on slavery was a lost cause, although he couldn’t figure out a way to wean himself let alone his fellow Virginians off of the wicked institution.  He even considered having “the state buy newborn slaves from their owners, relocate the separated children to Haiti, and let the enslaved adult population eventually die off.”[1]  Compared to the Declaration of Independence, definitely not one of his better ideas!

The abolishment of slavery was a liberal cause because it was based on humanitarian values and ideals.  So was woman’s suffrage.  In Jefferson’s day slaves and women could not vote or own property.  Even after they gained the right to vote, women and people of color were held back from getting a higher education and from many jobs and careers.  Today more than half of all physicians in the U.S. are women[2] and in the fight against the COVID19 virus, women and people of color are among the doctors and researchers on the forefront of fighting the disease.

Restricting immigration has always been a conservative lost cause.  There’s nothing wrong with determining who should be allowed to enter our country and under what conditions.  But liberals have always recognized that immigration has been good for our country and most liberals take pride in their ancestry.  For example, engineer and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk was born in South Africa; the parents of Amar Bose, founder of the Bose speaker company, came from Bengali, India; Anthony Fauci is the grandson of Italian immigrants; and Black Panther actor Chatwick Boseman’s ancestors came from Sierra Leone – one of Donald Trump’s “shit hole” countries.  Clearly, immigration has improved American society rather than weakened it.

Another lost conservative lost cause is the “war on drugs” with its emphasis on incarceration rather than addiction treatment.  As a result, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, particularly people of color.  This consumes a large portion of our nation’s economy, money which could be used to address the underlying causes of crime and drug addiction.  I’m a “numbers guy”, so to put this into perspective, about 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated compared to 1.5 million Chinese[3], even though China’s population is more than four times as large as the U.S.   

Conversely, liberal values have repeatedly enhanced the lives of Americans.  For example, workers unions gained traction in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.  When they marched and protested for better working conditions and benefits, the owners of the companies would call a local politician, who would call the police superintendent, who would order the police to break up the protests, even if it meant using force.  Many union members were beat and some killed by police.[4]  And yet today’s law enforcement officers have benefitted from the unions’ liberal demands, including pensions, health insurance, and paid sick leave.

Who would have thought that a liberal concept, same-sex marriage, would ever come about in the U.S.?  When I first started working in the field of mental health in the 1970s, homosexuality was a diagnosable sexual disorder.  Wow, how things have changed.  Today, polls show that two-thirds of Americans support same-sex marriage; it is legal in all fifty states; and it has been upheld by the Supreme Court.[5]  In part, some political conservatives support same-sex marriage because they believe in limited government, i.e., that government should not tell individuals how they can live their lives.

Liberals believe in things that benefit society as a whole and not just specific individuals.  Humorist Garrison Keillor once observed, “Liberals stand for tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for.”[6] Tax supported public education: liberal.  Clean air, clean water, sewage treatment: liberal; civil rights: liberal; voting rights: liberal; combating climate change: liberal; and yes – universal health care: definitely liberal.

My morning walks sometimes takes me to the city cemetery, where on a warm morning the only sounds are birds chirping.  There is a section of cemetery set aside for those who served in the military and this past Memorial Day, the city placed an American Flag in front of each veteran’s marker.  However, there was one gravesite, in another part of the cemetery that caught my attention because someone had placed a Confederate flag in front of it.

As a liberal I suppose I should be offended by the flag, but in this case, I wouldn’t have been aware of the marker if it hadn’t been for that pennant.  The inscription was concise:

Chas. D. Clarke

Born Dec. 21, 1841

Killed At Waynesboro

Sept. 27, 1864

I thought about this young man, just shy of his 23rd birthday, who died for a lost cause.  Liberals have been fighting for universal health care for nearly a century.  Progress has been slow but incremental: expansion of private health insurance; passage of Medicare and Medicaid; the Affordable Care Act; and expansion of Medicaid in many states.  If history tells us anything, it is that liberal values and ideals are not a lost cause and that includes universal health care.

[1] Gard, Richard (2019) “The Jefferson Progression.” Virginia. 108 (4), p. 42.

[2] Female physicians still earn less than their male counterparts; about $90,000 less per year. https://www.doximity.com/press_releases/new_study_reveals_significant_gaps_in_us_doctor_compensation

[3] https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/incarceration-rates-by-country/

[4] http://picturethis.museumca.org/timeline/depression-era-1930s/political-protest/info

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage

[6] Keillor, Garrison (2004). Homegrown Democrat. Penguin Books. p. 28.  When it comes to Republicans, Keillor notes, “you don’t want them monitoring your oxygen flow; they will set it to the minimum required to sustain basic brain function, and then hand you a prayer card.” Ibid., p. 17

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