Home / General / The Teleological Fallacy

The Teleological Fallacy


K-Drum makes a good point about the recent Thomas Frank Salon article that I neglected to:

But if it’s so easy to see this conservative delusion for what it is, why isn’t it equally easy to recognize the same brand of liberal delusion? Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don’t be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

Fearless navigator of our new comment system JeremyW puts it well:

[W]hat strikes me about this article is that he seems to have replaced the institutional status quo bias of our current political system with something that works the opposite way. Rather than a system where actual progressive change is difficult to win support for and subject to several veto points, he seems to think we have one where radical changes are constantly on the cusp of occurring and the whole neoliberal enterprise must be held together by a dastardly sellout president who can subvert the will of the people.

The most crucial underlying premise of Frank’s argument is that the American political economy was on the verge of a radical transformation in 2008, and this was prevented from happening because Barack Obama saved neoliberalism’s bacon. This is a rather problematic for his argument given its transparent falsity. It’s simply not true that most Americans drew the same conclusions from the financial meltdown that Frank did, and even they did the elites who control or strongly influence many key veto points in the American system certainly didn’t. As someone capable of being elected president of the United States Barack Obama is not a radical critic of capitalism, but in terms of whether American capitalism was going to be “put out of business” this is neither here nor there anyway.

Similar premises are also generally seen on attacks on the ACA from the left. To argue that the ACA isn’t better than the status quo ante from a progressive standpoint would be ridiculous, so the strategy is to change the baseline and compare the ACA to another alternative. In policy terms, this isn’t challenging, since you could throw a dart at a map of Western Europe and get a health care system preferable to the ACA. But it’s also completely irrelevant, because the choice wasn’t between the ACA and the French health care system but the ACA and nothing or almost nothing. To get around the obvious political reality, left ACA critics smart enough not to argue that Barack Obama could have forced the Senate to pass single payer through such brilliant strategery as promising senators that he would campaign for them in states where he’s enormously unpopular turn to assertions that the American insurance industry was on the verge of collapse before Barack Obama saved it. And, again, this is sheer lunacy. The American health care system circa 2008 was grossly inefficient and disastrous for many Americans, but for the most politically powerful vested interests — insurance companies and their executives, medical professionals, affluent customers, people over 65 — it works perfectly well or better. (To people who confuse American politics with the Oxford debating society, the success of Medicare should make Medicare for all highly popular. In reality, the overwhelmingly conservative white beneficiaries of Medicare are much more likely to take the lesson of “I’ve got mine and to hell with you.”) The American health insurance industry wasn’t going anywhere had the ACA not passed.

And what’s going on with Republican statehouses and the Medicaid expansion should draw a line under that. The typical Republican state politician is willing to turn down huge pots of free money from the federal government to validate the principle that if the working poor get sick it should be left to the Great Market in the Sky to sort things out. To believe in this context that the collapse of the private American health insurance industry was inevitable absent the ACA is to enter a land of fantasia.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • I have been irritated with the anti-ACA “progressives” from the get-go, but now that I have qualified for the expanded Medi-Cal, and am finally getting attention for some (mostly) minor medical issues, these people really piss me off. The whole “since it isn’t perfect, it’s worse than doing nothing” crap needs to stop.

    That said, the actual number of people spewing this crap on the left does seem to be shrinking.

    • Bruce B.

      Not down to zero yet, alas. I spent some time providing a sympathetic virtual shoulder just yesterday for a friend who relies on Medicaid as much as I do and had had a long ugly exchange with someone doing the whole “they’re all the same” schtick. Her opponent came right up to the edge of saying either “no, see, you don’t count” or “no, see, women in general don’t count” before noticing what he was doing and pulling back just a bit.

      It would be difficult to explain just how much I hate that shit.

    • Scott Lemieux

      But as Esper has pointed out, the real progressive position is that private charity is better than Medicaid — hopefully one day you will overcome your false consciousness.

      • You guys blew it by promoting a reasonable, knowledgable and insightful person like Attewell. If you couldn’t have gotten Deboer, you should have promoted Esper.

      • junker

        I’m still reeling from the “One time I went to the emergency room and got to cut the line in front of a Medicaid recipient, proving that Medicaid is worthless” anecdote.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Particularly since, as far as I can tell, that anecdote is his entire basis for opposing the ACA.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        jesus, i somehow missed that one. he might as well be a republican

        • Scott Lemieux

          Here you go! Generally, people who hold themselves out as the One True Leftist avoid channeling Megan McArdle but here we are.

          • junker

            You can see even there a good example of trying to act like the only option for those on the border of Medicaid eligibility are bronze plans, when the reality is that people there are subsidized enough to move up to nicer plans. I remember in a different thread doing the math to show him how he was screwing up.

            Either he doesn’t know how the ACA actually works or he is willfully lying about it.

      • tsam

        That’s um…WOW. Industrial strength stupid.

    • Brien Jackson

      Unfortunately, Real True Progressives know that Medicaid doesn’t count because it helps poor people, not middle/upper middle class white folk like Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald um….LOOK OVER THERE. So really, you haven’t benefitted from the ACA at all.

    • I think those people have begun shifting from ACA to more purely economic/class stuff, a broader populist position. I think that’s a more productive approach, as economic populism and anti-plutocracy is easier understood and more visceral than, say, the public option. But it’s still rooted in the same conceptual problem, the underlying assumption that liberals from Boulder or Portland or Brookline or Dupont Circle can just tell a poultry worker in Arkansas or a truck driver in Akron that they’re deluded by false class consciousness and they’ll see the light, or, alternatively, if some savior messiah zombie Paul Wellstone mythical FDR who every single day of his presidency gave his 1936 weekend before the election speech saying he welcomed plutocrats’ hatred Democrat just listened to them and followed their strategy and read their talking points everyone would raise their pitchforks, the plutocrats would all fly to the Caymans, and we’d implement European social democracy in one week.

      Their problem is they don’t view people who don’t think exactly like they do as possibly having other values that trump economic values, plus their own tribalism prevents them from understanding the limits of the tribalism of white working class cultural revanchists.

      • Pat

        I think that the poultry worker in Arkansas would vote for a raise in the minimum wage in a (ahem) New York minute, if they (a) knew that this was on the table and (b) believed that their vote would get it done. Similarly, I think said poultry worker would vote in favor of effective birth control being covered by insurance, if the same circumstances were met.

        But we would have to meet said worker without contempt, and without telling them what they should think or what they are doing wrong. Which makes it harder for some.

        • Gareth

          Yes, but he’d also vote to ban gay marriage.

  • Jewish Steel

    I liked Frank’s writing in The Baffler way back in the 90s. Either I was naive or Frank got dumber.

    I never in a million years thought America would elect a dolt like W. So I’ll go with naive.

  • Manju

    Did Thomas Frank mention the repeal DOMA as a victory of the Obama era?

    I mean, I tuned him out after his anti-intellectual screed against the scholar who debunked WTMWK, so maybe I missed it…but for a guy who was arguing that Republicans were successfully luring White Working Class voters with divisive social issues that trumped econ, I would think he’d be shouting from the rooftops in glee.

    Also, slightly OT, but the meme that R’s benefited in 2004 from their anti-gay demagoguery is a load of crap:


    • Scott Lemieux
      • Manju

        Well…what the hell am I gonna do now?

        • Malaclypse

          It gets worse.

          We’ll make a liberal of you yet.

          • Manju

            I am having an existential crises. Hopefully it’ll be over as soon as I figure out what Existentialism is.

            • Malaclypse

              It probably involves a false belief in a unitary self brought about by comment registration.

              • Manju

                This is absurd.

                • Malaclypse

                  Hell is other commenters.

                • Pat

                  Existentialism is a matter of existence, Manju, which is within your powers to remedy.

                • Scott Lemieux

                  This is absurd.

                  I have YouTube of a speech given by Jon Gruber in 2012 clearly endorsing Malaclypse’s position, so I’m afraid the debate is over.

  • For reasons that remain obscure, in Drum’s post I engaged in a long-running dialogue with someone who insisted that Obama could have gotten single-payer. How?

    I suggest that the iron will of the administration plus the obedience of the caucus that had a supermajority would have equalled single payer. You offer only pessimism.

    Huh. A iron will and an obedient Senate was all it would have taken. Who knew?


    • The obedience of the Lieberman/Landrieu/Baucus caucus. Yes. All of them would have prostrated themselves before the Iron Willy.

      • “Is it twue what they say about your people being gifted with iron will?”

        “It’s twue! It’s twue!”

    • dmsilev

      An obedient Senate? Presumably such is available because Obama has a mind-controlled unicorn standing behind each Senator with orders to gore the Senator if he or she dares step out of line.

    • FlipYrWhig

      The presumption of the “obedient Senate” is the key to every one of these counterfactuals. Sure, if you begin with the idea that “the Democrats” are a monolith awaiting orders from the president from their same party, then you can build a whole set of theories about why Obama was unable or unwilling to “lead,” or let failure happen on purpose. But _we know that’s not what Democrats do_. _We watched this happen in real time_. You can’t just assume the can opener here. Rounding up the support of Democrats for Democratic proposals is a bear.

      • NonyNony

        Ah but you see if Obama were a real leader who leads with leadership, then he would have been able to unite the Democrats in Congress through his sheer leadery-leadership abilities and make them do what he wanted. The fact that he didn’t do that means that he didn’t really want to because he didn’t even try.

        If had really wanted it then he would have gotten it done. Just like Bill Clinton passed single payer health care and changed the rules to allow gay members of the military to serve openly in the 90s when he had a Democratic majority for the first two years he was President. That was true leading via leadery-leadership I tell you.

        • Scott Lemieux

          The Green Lantern theory of presidential power seems to view Clinton on health care/gays in the military and George W. Bush on Social Security as the models for success.

      • junker

        Related arguments we’ve seen around here:

        “The Democratic leadership should have killed the filibuster right when they took power, rendering the conservadems obsolete.”

        “The Democratic leadership should have convinced the conservadems to vote for cloture while voting against the bill, because surely their constituencies would be able to distinguish between the two votes.”

        • Well, the Senate Democrats should have changed the filibuster in 2009, and not doing so is one of the great unforced errors in US politics. But I don’t put that on Reid. Because of jerks (like Lieberman and Ben Nelson), transactionalists who wanted it retained (the Hawaiians) and a few procedural conservatives (like Byrd and Levin), Reid never had the votes, and wasn’t going to get them.

          Hell, as much as the caucus has changed for the better since 2006, he probably still doesn’t have 50 votes for meaningful changes.

          • junker

            I agree with the part about Democrats not willing to do it, but I think it’s easier to say with hindsight that they should have done it, knowing how things turned out with the “filibuster everything” Republicans. I think it was less than obvious that that was how it would turn out.

            • Well, in my version of “don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos” I’d been preaching that since at least 2007. And David Waldman/KagroX had been writing about it at DKos and organizing DC groups to push for it starting in 2008.

      • Hogan

        His biggest failure was not issuing an executive order that abolished the filibuster. That would have shown those senators what’s what.

        • Malaclypse

          Look, if Charles I could dissolve Parliament without serious repercussions, why couldn’t Obama dissolve the Senate? He. Didn’t. Even. Try.

    • MAJeff

      So, they think we have a parliament?

      • tsam

        It’s the Imperial Senate. The Emperor just dissolved it this morning.

    • rea

      A iron will and an obedient Senate was all it would have taken. Who knew?

      This is how Nero got single payer, after all.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Yeah, but the gains from health insurance were wiped out by the losses from fire insurance.

      • dmsilev

        All right, but apart from the sanitation, single-payer health care, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

        • Autonomous Coward


          ETA (because I can): *sigh* it just isn’t the same without “People’s Judean Popular Front” or similar for the name…)

          • Clever NickName Here

            You can go into your profile and change your Nickname and Display name. It’s a bit more work, but if the joke is good it might be worth it…

    • Manju

      I engaged in a long-running dialogue with someone who insisted that Obama could have gotten single-payer. How?

      I once engaged in a short-running argument with a dude who thought LBJ convinced Southern Dems to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

      This seems relevant.

  • McAllen

    It is deeply weird to me that “There are deep structural and cultural issues that will need to be changed before progressive change can really come to pass” is seen as the argument of weak-kneed moderates, and “We just need to elect the right guy and we can easily get everything we want with the current system” is seen as the argument of true leftists.

    • junker

      Not to derail from your (very good) point, but is that a Phi avatar I see? I thought I was the only person in the world to play Virtue’s Last Reward!

      • McAllen

        It is!

        And I hope we weren’t the only two to play Virtue’s Last Reward; I’m going to be deeply disappointed if they don’t make a third game.

    • NonyNony

      Eh, not so much. Saying “there are structural and cultural issues that need to be changed” can sound like “there’s nothing we can do about it so why bother” cynicism to a passionate believer. Passionate believers also tend to invest a lot of faith in singular events or individuals who can change things just through personality or just because their election “makes a statement”.

      It’s not realistic, but when you’re an idealist nothing else you’re doing is realistic either and you kid yourself (says the guy who was very much an idealist when he was younger, and who is not probably more cynical than he should be…)

      • Sometimes it’s fatalistic, but seldom is it with critics of Obama or the Democrats for not delivering Utopia by June 2009. McAllen is 100% right, the “left” has given up structural analysis. After in its extreme Marxist forms blaming EVERYTHING on structure, at some point what has become characterized as the American left became people who personalize everything and have zero interest in structural or historical explanations. If Obama and Democrats are in power and things don’t change in the desired way, it’s because Obama and the Dems were too weak or deliberately venal. It’s always about character and personality, usually hinging on questions of authenticity and toughness. It’s a simple heuristic for people not very interested in politics, or the world view of children and politically-interested people too lazy to think hard and learn something.

        • Scott Lemieux

          This is what always amazes me when deBoer et al assert that they’re disagreeing with me from “the left.” My position is that their analysis would benefit from more Marxism.

          • NonyNony

            Sometimes I feel that there are many folks on the self-proclaimed left who have read Marx with the same level of care and understanding as libertarians tend to read Adam Smith. Because yeah I’d agree with that.

      • LeeEsq

        Passionate believers also tend to think that most people are natural believers in whatever ideology is at question and just haven’t been exposed to the right arguments yet.

        • Pat

          I really hate sitting next to people like that at dinner.

  • junker

    Other silly arguments:

    Blaming the administration for the conservative Supreme Court’s gutting of the Medicaid expansion.

    Trying to tar the exchange plans by pretending that bronze plans, with no subsidies, is the only choice.

    And of course the all-time grand champion, “Obama should have just declared martial law/agreed to bomb Iran!”

  • cpinva

    “In reality, the overwhelmingly conservative white beneficiaries of Medicare are much more likely to take the lesson of “I’ve got mine and to hell with you.”)”

    bearing in mind, these are the very same people who want to “keep the government out of my medicare!” where it actually does come from, and who is actually administrating it, they never say.

    I am probably going to have to go bleach my brain, and say several “Hail Mary’s”, as acts of contrition, but i’ll bear that burden. after re-reading the franks article, it occurred to me that, consciously or otherwise, he sees pres. Obama as the failed “Magic Negro” president. he assumed office with a halo and bursting with powers, which he spent the next 5.5 years squandering, to mr. franks utter disgust.

    in other words, mr. franks is barking mad, or this was a complete troll article.

  • Autonomous Coward

    Talking Points Memo reports subsidies on the federal exchange barred: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/dc/dc-circuit-halbig-obamacare-subsidies

  • LeeEsq

    Its kind of rich that Thomas Frank, who wrote a book on why people who would benefit from liberal policies vote against their own interests, would believe that Americans were ready from sweeping liberal change in 2008. He should know that there are many conservatives in the United States that don’t agree with the premises of liberalism.

    Kevin Drum beats on this drum a lot but deservedely so. I really don’t think that many people who make arguments like Frank does really understand the breakdown of political beliefs in the electorate. To get liberal policies, you need at least a liberal plurality in the electorate. What we have is a conservative plurality. Its been this way for a long time. Things are changing and I think we are moving towards a liberal plurality but it is not going to be a fast change.

    • witlesschum

      I think what I see and maybe what Frank sees is that there is a bloc of people in the middle who don’t have coherent or specific political beliefs, especially about economics, and that you can pretty much get those people to go along with whatever if you smile, don’t make any sudden movements and tell them it’s for the American dream. Basically, people who aren’t partisans of either side and probably can’t name the secretary of defense. It seems like if they don’t have strong beliefs on things, they’ll accept any old thing. And I think we all know those people who don’t have coherent views and are sorta whatever both sides suck about politics.

      So it feels like it’d be possible to push things through and people would follow us left. I know that’s true to some extent, but how far it would go, maybe not very? I don’t know. But that’s where the veto points come in and the money people are able to grab control of enough of them where you don’t get to try something like what Frank appears to have wanted from Obama in 2009. I’d like to have seen the financial crisis used as an opportunity to chase the financial industry back into its cage, too, but I’d like a lot of things.

      • LeeEsq

        We have lots of political apathetic people in the United States but thats true for most other democratic countries to. Its difficult to tell this from the blogosphere but most people really don’t like following or thinking about politics too much. They have lots of other things to worry about and other things they want to think about. Most voters are low information voters.

        My feeling is that you really can’t do much to get the apathetic motivated outside some really egregious external factors like what happened in Greece rather than the United States. When most people get really active in politics things tend to be very bad.

        • Pat

          Well, yeah, if they are low-information voters, then it might be problematic what their representatives do when they get into power, right?

  • DrDick

    While I do tend to think that Obama could have pushed harder for single payer, I recognize that there were very large structural barriers and strong opposition from a lot of powerful interests to whom many Democrats were beholden. That said, ACA is a huge improvement over what we had and a good thing in itself, as well as a major accomplishment given the forces arrayed against it. To hate it because it is not perfect is profoundly stupid.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Thomas Frank knows the majority of Americans are impoverished and angry enough to storm Washington, and yet not one of them seems to be one of the millions of childless adults in poverty who’ve gained Medicaid eligibility under ACA.


  • Easwaran

    While engaged in hindsight analysis, I’d be very interested to read thoughts about another left-wing critique of Obama: that the focus on healthcare reform in 2008-2009 was a clearly worse choice than a similar push on financial regulation/prosecution or cap-and-trade.

    I was personally perplexed by the pivot to healthcare as it happened. The economy was tanking and the environment was dying. Why was healthcare reform the response?

    • NonyNony

      It wasn’t a response and there was no pivot – it was part of the campaign that he was elected on in 2008. It was one of his signature issues during that campaign and he wanted to deliver on it.

      • Easwaran

        I found this link illustrating a rough timeline of events in 2009. I think your account sounds correct.

        I suppose my follow-up question would be: was delivering on healthcare worth the non-action on the other fronts?

        • tsam

          I’m not sure you can prove a causal link between getting health care and losing the others. Once the 2010 midterms changed the House, there was no way Obama was going to get much in the way of landmark legislation passed. That may have been, in some ways, a consequence of the ACA, but in large part, that resistance from Congress was coming no matter what Obama did.

        • njorl

          Cap and trade was dead when the economy tanked. Nothing which might cost jobs was getting through congress in 2009.

          Financial regulation was pursued. If we didn’t get everything we could, it wasn’t because of the ACA.

    • Pat

      A big part of doing health care before cap and trade was because health care costs are a massive part of the federal budget. Without some way of “bending the cost curve,” continually increasing health care costs were going to swamp the federal budget. That reform had to get out of the way first, because without it we couldn’t afford to do anything else.

      You should remember, though, that the stimulus occurred months before they started working on the ACA.

    • Hogan

      I’m not clear on how financial regulation/prosecution hastens economic recovery.

    • UserGoogol

      Congress did to a certain extent multitask: Dodd-Frank was being worked on (and less contentious economic stuff like the Credit CARD Act was passed) simultaneously with Congress working on health care reform. Much of the work of health care reform took place in committees, after all.

    • joe from Lowell

      Getting health care reform passed is job 1 for any Democratic President. It would have been a massive betrayal if that wasn’t right at the top of the agenda.

      Even bumping it down past ARRA on the list of priorities almost lost us the whole thing.

It is main inner container footer text