In Rhetoric and Reaction, A.O. Hirschman traced three types of argument designed to stop progress down through the ages: the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. Hirschman showed that these arguments are deployed to disrupt the logic of progression, but close analysis reveals their fallacious nature. Further, Hirschman ends his book with a close look at the opposite side. Devoting a few chapters to an analysis of the rhetoric progressives deploy in order to spur action.
Right now makes the perfect occasion to get reacquainted with this book and Hirschman’s theories on rhetoric and political theory because the future of progressive politics in America hangs in the balance, as the Iowa caucus heads for a photo finish between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Each candidate seeks the progressive vote, so one would expect to hear arguments bearing resemblance to the type of rhetoric Hirschman analyzes in the closing chapters of his book. However, an application of Hirschman reveals the hidden reactionary structures of Clinton’s recent arguments concerning healthcare.
Why does so much Bernie backlash from the liberal democrat crowd rely on reactionary rhetoric?
Albert O. Hirschman wrote about three types of reactionary rhetoric that have been launched against progressive ideas throughout the history of democracy. (1) the perversity thesis — any action to improve the social, political, or economic order will cause the opposite result. (2) the futility thesis — attempts at social, political, or economic transformation will produce no change in the status quo. (3) The jeopardy thesis — the cost of change is too high; attempts to change could cause us to lose what we have fought so hard to get.
And Hillary has deployed each of these reactionary arguments in the past. We might see Perversity in the statement that Bernie’s healthcare plan might end up harming the very people he wants to help by raising taxes. We might hear Futility in the statement that Bernie’s healthcare plan will not pass congress after he is elected. And, we might hear Jeopardy in the statement that Bernie’s healthcare plan might cost us Obamacare and cause us to lose what we fought so hard to win.
Today Hillary Clinton delivered an argument that twisted two of Hirschman’s reactionary arguments and reversed the logic on a long standing progressive standard. Hillary said that single-payer healthcare would never, ever happen in the U.S. In the closing chapters of his book, Hirschman wrote that one type of progressive argument is deployed to spur action in an unlikely way, through destiny. He called this the “history is on our side” thesis, and one can see it vividly in the recent arguments for the legalization of gay marriage. Those opposed were said to be “on the wrong side of history.” Here is how Hillary framed her opposition to Bernie’s promise to deliver single-payer healthcare. From CBS news:
“I want you to understand why I am fighting so hard for the Affordable Care Act,” she said at Grand View University after hearing from a woman who spoke about her daughter receiving cancer treatment thanks to the health care law. “I don’t want it repealed, I don’t want us to be thrown back into a terrible, terrible national debate. I don’t want us to end up in gridlock. People can’t wait!”
She added, “People who have health emergencies can’t wait for us to have a theoretical debate about some better idea that will never, ever come to pass.”
This message is remarkable from a Hirschman perspective for a number of reasons. Easily noted is how it reverses the progressive logic of history leading toward progress, but what Hirschman provides access to is the ways in which Hillary’s argument barrows from reactionary rhetoric to shut down efforts for progress. One expects this type of framing from the right, but seeing here, in an argument to fellow Democrats attempting to persuade them to vote, should cause many on the left to throw side-eye.
Hirschman allows readers to see how Hillary has knotted a rhetorical pretzel, twisting the perversity thesis and the jeopardy thesis together in order to call the audience to inaction. Hillary appears to say, “Don’t act now!” The message drips with urgency. And not only that, but it also makes future action appear at best foolish and at worst immoral. But does it stand up to scrutiny?
For us to believe Hillary’s warning, we would have to believe that Bernie would allow Obamacare to be revoked before having single-payer set up. It is a stupid monkey who lets go of one branch before having the next one firmly in their grasp. I don’t see Bernie doing this. In addition, we would have to believe that nothing can remove the Republican majority in Congress. Hillary’s doesn’t sound like a message that a progressive would make.
No matter the out come in Iowa, it is important to note this rhetoric because it displays an ethos of the progressive party in the years following the banking crisis, the Occupy and Black Lives movements, and citizens united. Recently, the U.K.’s Guardian exposed that less progressive, new Democrats feared a Bernie Rebellion in their party.
This paraphrase of Hirschman advice following his exposure of the limits of both Progressive and Reactionary rhetoric captures his call well.
The baneful consequences of either action or inaction can never be known with certainty but our reaction to either is affected by the two types of alarm-sounding Cassandras with whom we have become acquainted.
However, Hirschman does note the power of suggesting that history is on our side. And we have seen it with the victory of gay marriage. And yet, Hillary has ended history itself. There can be no more progress with Hillary.