Not Everyone Can Be Right

Ryan Zoellner

I am a firm proponent of a “wide conception of objectivity” in journalism. I believe that human beings (particularly those of the press) are inextricably biased, and therefore the only way to develop an objective view of the world is to engage with journalists from all stripes. For this reason, I try to keep my Twitter feed pretty eclectic –– for every Rich Lowry or Marco Rubio I follow, I attempt to counterbalance them with an Ezra Klein or Elizabeth Warren –– and I like to think that, for the most part, it works. However, on February 7, the evening of Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Bernie Sanders’ CNN healthcare debate, this was just confusing. It seems that America is, at the moment, so split on the issue of healthcare that one journalist’s definition of right is another’s idea of flaming anathema. This is a problem. 

If you Google “Cruz Sanders Debate CNN,” two of the first video clips you will find are “Ted Cruz Destroys Bernie Sanders Over the Scam Known as Obamacare” and “Bernie Sanders Schools Ted Cruz in CNN Debate.” I, of course, acknowledge that both of the well-educated, articulate U.S senators made many good points during the debate, but this still strikes me as odd. Either Cruz came out on top or Sanders did. Both cannot be simultaneously right as they are so ideologically opposed on this issue, yet Republicans seem to unanimously think Cruz won, while Democrats believe with just as much certainty that Sanders came out on top. Why is this?

This phenomenon, which is not at all unique to health policy debate, can be attributed to something known in philosophy as a disagreement in definition: two parties cannot come to an agreement on a secondary question (“how do we make healthcare better?”) because they cannot even come to agree on a primary question (the definition of “better”). Many times during the debate, Sanders made reference to a “single payer healthcare system” as a positive, knowing that Republicans treat the same phrase as a dirty word. Meanwhile, Cruz frequently lauded “free-market solutions,” which Sanders and Democrats see as an obfuscation for predatory capitalism and discuss only as a pejorative. Politics aside, we all know the definition of “better healthcare” to be a system which is equitable and efficient for everyone, yet we somehow cannot have a meaningful debate on the matter because we are partisan to the point of lingual incoherence.   

Sadly, health policy debate wasn’t always this way. All of us have or will have sick mothers, fathers, friends and children. We all want the best for them. Shortly before the presidential race of 2008, Senator Max Baucus hosted a bipartisan summit to discuss healthcare in the United States. This meeting was famous for the wide agreements reached across party lines on the issue, and almost all who attended walked away thinking “this is how government should work.” As the presidential race wore on, the issue became more and more politically divisive, and in the nascency of the Obama presidency, became entirely defined by party lines (a cleaving attributed to both the actions of Democrats in Congress and the alarmist rhetoric of Republicans in the media). With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, health policy had become a full-blown war of the parties. Eight years passed, and now we have Senators Cruz and Sanders so split they can barely understand one another.  

Partisanship is par for the course. We’ve come to accept it in virtually all realms of discussion, but it is particularly dangerous in the context of healthcare. If Democrats and Republicans cannot even agree on what “good” policy looks like in practice, everyone loses. My fear is that if these divisions persist, the entire health landscape will change every eight years or so as regimes shift in Washington. This is wholly unacceptable. If politicians and political actors are as committed as they purport to be, recognizing that there is only one definition of “good policy” is imperative; this is too significant to quibble over.