The Politics of Self-Esteem

By Samuelson, Robert J. | Newsweek, April 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Self-Esteem


Samuelson, Robert J., Newsweek


Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

Why everyone feels offended.

Some while back, I proposed a concept that did not stick. I called it "the politics of self-esteem." My argument was that politics increasingly devotes itself to making people feel good about themselves--elevating their sense of self-worth and affirming their belief in their moral superiority. By contrast, the standard view of politics is that it mediates conflicting interests and ideas. The winners receive economic benefits and political privileges; the losers don't. This an apt time to resurrect my rival theory because it helps explain why the health-care debate became so inflamed.

The two theories are not incompatible. They can and do coexist. In fiscal 2010, the federal government will distribute about $2.4 trillion in benefits to individuals. Taxes and regulations discriminate for and against various groups. Politics shapes this process. But in truth, differences between parties are often small. Democrats want to spend more and don't want to raise taxes, except on high earners. Republicans want to reduce taxes but don't want to spend less. Vast budget deficits reflect both parties' unwillingness to make unpopular choices of cutting benefits or boosting taxes.

Given this evasion, the public agenda gravitates toward issues framed as moral matters. Global warming is about "saving the planet." Abortion and gay marriage evoke deep values, each side believing it commands the high ground. Certainly, President Obama pitched his health-care plan as a moral issue. It enshrines "the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care," as he said on signing the bill. Health care is a "right"; opponents become less moral.

Obama's approach was politically necessary. On a simple calculus of benefits, the proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage--about 10 percent of the population. Other provisions add somewhat to total beneficiaries. Still, for most Americans, the bill won't do much. It may impose costs: higher taxes, longer waits for appointments.

People backed it be-cause they thought it "the right thing"; it made them feel good about themselves. What they got from the political process are what I call "psychic benefits." Economic benefits aim to make people richer. …

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