A thoughtful-o-meter for politics

Nov. 15, 2016, 12:07 a.m.

An experienced physician once taught me to use my “internal thoughtful-o-meter” when making medical decisions with my patients. Should I get this surgery? Which medication should I choose to keep my heart healthy? How do I get rid of my pain?

These questions are often complex and do not have clear answers. Some physicians will thoughtfully think through the risks and benefits, stay mindful of their personal biases and knowledge gaps, and not be afraid to confront inconvenient truths together with their patients. Yet, it is much easier to just order that new expensive test or prescribe that extra dose of painkillers. Patients may like you more and you may even get paid more money. Which path to take is a personal choice that we as physicians have to make.

Why can’t we use our internal thoughtful-o-meters when talking about the future of our country? When we talk about an idea in politics, before we assign it a label as being conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, progressive, establishment, pro-Sanders, pro-Clinton, or pro-Trump, can we first step back and ask ourselves: How thoughtful is that idea?

There is the growing theme that Hillary Clinton lost because this was a populist election. I think that this is true.

As human beings, we are programmed to want to band together against a common enemy. This instinct has brought out the best and worst in us; it has allowed us to end slavery and defeat fascism in the early 20th century, but it is also the same instinct that enabled ideologues to use fascism and communism to build and control empires. Populism can be inspiring or it can lead countries astray. History will be the judge of how it will impact America after this election.

The problem with populism is that while these movements can often start with legitimate grievances, thoughtful conversation ends up getting drowned out by louder voices. What happened in the Republican Party needs no further description. But we can’t ignore what also happened among progressives.

I remember very well during one of the early democratic primary debates, the moderator asked the question, “What is America’s greatest national security threat?” Most of the candidates, including Hillary Clinton, mentioned something about the Middle East, ISIS, etc. Then, Bernie Sanders, a guy who I knew little about at the time, answered “global warming.” Holy crap, I thought. This guy gets it.

His movement was inspiring because it was willing to call out many of the fundamental problems of our country. It provided a sweeping vision for a world that progressives have longed to build. Rob Reich said it most poignantly: Hillary Clinton “is the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have, but Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.”

But his movement also led to other things. It led to an intense and often irrational hatred against an enemy that had many names: the establishment, Wall Street, corporations, the 0.1%, and eventually the DNC and Hillary Clinton. Policies were framed around a strong “us against them” narrative that had little room for anything in between. Policies and politicians were assigned black and white labels as being either “true” progressives or “establishment.” Critics who had legitimate concerns about policies in his platform were dismissed as “part of the establishment.” Thoughtful discussion and balanced comparisons between the two candidates were often drowned out by a rabid, visceral disgust of Hillary Clinton that rivaled what was seen at Trump rallies. Hillary was literally the physical manifestation of the corrupt establishment politician, aka Undesirable No. 1.

Here is a thought that some may disagree with: Hillary Clinton lost this election because she was too honest.

No, I am not denying the many lies that she has almost certainly used to advance her political career over the last 30 years. I don’t like it either. That would be one of the cons about her. What I am referring to is her honesty on the inconvenient truth about how messy, difficult, and uncertain that change in public policy can be. A nationwide minimum wage of $15 is an inspiring progressive vision. But what about many of the struggling economies of the Rust Belt that could collapse when small businesses will close because they simply cannot afford that wage? An outright ban on fracking is a strong message that inspires passion for the fight against climate change. But what about the communities in Oklahoma that have just recently finally seen some resurgence of wealth brought in by a newly invigorated workforce built around fracking? These are inconvenient truths that are difficult to frame in a political campaign. Hillary could have just simply lied and proposed an even more progressive platform to get more votes, because hey, what the hell, lying obviously worked this election. But instead, she chose to adopt policies that were slightly less progressive. Did we have a thoughtful discussion about why she made those decisions? No, because it was already decided that this was irrefutable evidence that she is bought by Wall Street and the oil companies. Economic arguments supporting Hillary’s policies were not met with informed, thoughtful counterarguments, but dismissed by being labeled as “establishment economics.” I was disappointed, but not surprised. Even though I was inspired by much of Bernie’s vision, I was deeply turned off by the irrational populism that had already begun to infiltrate his campaign.

Progressives are now struggling to regroup and rebuild. There are many reasons for the result of this election. It is undeniable that Hillary had significant weaknesses as a candidate and there are certainly out-of-touch urban liberals who fail to empathize with the rural working class that made up part of Trump’s voting bloc. But let’s not forget one core pathology that dominated this election: the lack of thoughtfulness. When we are not thoughtful, we are vulnerable to manipulation. And if we are being manipulated, how can we truly have a government for the people?

— Ron C. Li
Stanford University, Internal Medicine
Resident, PGY-3

Contact Ron Li at ronl ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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