Harold Pollack (second from top right). The Leonia High School (Leonia, NJ) 1981 Prom. Looking back, Harold advises; “Never rent a powder blue tuxedo.”
In the late 1970s, Brighton High School student Dr. Harold Pollack often visited his friend David Kramer’s house after school. There, Harold, a budding conservative, debated politics with David’s mother, Carol, a lifetime liberal since her birth in the first year of FDR’s presidencies.
The debates were a mini-version of the concurring 60 Minutes segment, “Point/Counterpoint” (1971 – 1979), where liberal Shana Alexander jousted with conservative James Kilpatrick. Carol and Harold argued about liberal and conservative political theory in general, as well as events of the day: the Carter presidency and America’s supposed “malaise,” inflation, the energy crisis, Afghanistan and Iran. The back-and-forth — on 60 Minutes and at Avalon Drive — was heated but always civil.In his junior year, Harold moved to Leonia, NJ, later graduating from Princeton University. At Princeton, during the first years of the Reagan administration, Harold grew disenchanted with conservatism, especially with Reagan as the face of the movement. In Harold’s first eligible presidential election, 1984, he cast his vote for Democrat Walter Mondale, and has practiced liberal politics since. Later, Harold realized his youthful embrace of conservatism was more a form of adolescent rebellion against family members who came from a long lineage of Jewish socialists.
After Princeton, Harold received master’s and doctorate degrees in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and is currently the Helen Ross Professor in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. A nationally recognized expert on health care, Harold’s journalism regularly appears in such outlets as Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times, New Republic, and other popular publications.
While Harold frequently visits friends and his mother in Rochester, Harold “James” had not seen Carol “Shana” in close to forty years. On the day after Christmas, Harold dropped by the old Avalon Drive debate stage.
Luckily, Carol reads Harold’s pieces in The New York Times and accepts his longstanding liberal bona fides. Much like Nixon and Mao in China, the embrace was warm.
For the photo-ops, Harold wore Carol’s Democratic presidential campaign buttons — FDR, Stevenson, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore and Kerry– as well as a Cuban national baseball team cap brought back from communism to capitalism by our mutual friend Dean Tucker.
Before turning to Harold for commentary on liberalism and health care, I revisited a classic liberal handbook, Neil Staebler and Douglas Ross’ How to Argue with a Conservative (1965) whose arguments to some degree shaped Harold and Carol’s debates in the late 1970S.
Talker: How to Argue with a Conservative appeared in the aftermath of LBJ’s 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater (often considered the father of movement conservatism). Many of the book’s arguments revolve around the role and scope of government, especially the federal government, and how the New Deal and the emerging Great Society either limits or expands individual freedom.¹
Since 1964 onward, the terms liberal and conservative are still obviously important categories — see Kramer/Pollack and Alexander/Kilpatrick — but ones whose meaning change over time. Do have a working definition of your own liberalism(s)? Are there figures — past or present — who personify liberalism for you?
HP: Figures who personify my own liberalism include Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The liberalism that appeals to me is socially inclusive—embracing all people of different races, religions, gender identities, and so on. My liberalism embraces social insurance — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — but is more adamant about ends such as universal coverage than it is about the means to do so. If we can only get to universal coverage through single-payer health care, then I’m for that. If a mixed public-private system is more politically and administratively feasible, I’m for that.
Social insurance is the goal. We must have each others’ backs. We can protect each other against life’s risks that could crush any one of us, if we had to face them alone. I also embrace evidence-informed public policy. Markets work really well to distribute sneakers and coffee cups across the economy. Unregulated markets work less well to protect us all against climate change or to ensure that every American with cancer gets proper care. When I realized that conservatives don’t embrace that inclusive vision, I stopped being conservative.
I should say that I always disdained the Soviet model. We grew up with Refuseniks and other victims of human rights violations in the USSR and Eastern Europe. I am sure that these experiences influenced the conservatism of my early days. Adolescent rebellion factored in as well. My mom and many other relatives were quite progressive. It’s ironic that my brand of Cold War liberalism is once again pertinent and in fashion.¹
Talker: In Argue, the liberal co-authors say; “Probably the most difficult conservative charge to handle is the accusation that liberalism leads to socialism (64).” Your field is health care. You must hear the charge that ObamaCare is another slippery step towards socialized medicine. How do you respond?
HP: Two issues are at the heart of this charge.
First is a fundamental confusion regarding the difference between universal coverage, single-payer, and socialized medicine. Many European social democracies have universal coverage while maintaining private coverage in some form, and while avoiding a national health service of the form we usually mean by the term “socialized medicine.” Germany, Switzerland, and Holland are all examples of this. They resemble what ObamaCare would really look like if it were done right.
Second, such rhetoric reflects a political effort to depict ObamaCare as fundamentally alien and un-American. It’s quite the opposite—a messy, market-based system that reflects many of the basic virtues and vices of the American political system.
Talker: More generally, in your role as a public intellectual, you approach public policy issues involving health care from a liberal perspective. On health care issues, when encountering conservatives or conservative ideas, what are your persuasive strategies? How do you argue with a conservative?
HP: A few thoughts.
I’d start by saying that winning arguments is over-rated. My main goal doing retail politics is not to win arguments, but to build human connection, to learn from people, and to understand what is truly important to them. The worst thing I can do door-to-door is to kick somebody’s butt in a health care policy argument. I have never really persuaded anyone of anything doing that.
Moreover, conservatives aren’t wrong about everything. Many young people conflate conservatism with the unworthiness of President Trump and his core followers. That’s only one strand of American conservatism. We can reject the President’s grifting demagoguery while learning from others’ perspectives.
¹ When rereading How to Argue with a Conservative (1965), I was particularly struck by the chapter “Foreign Policy.” The liberal speaker was as adamantly cognizant of the threat of, and strongly opposed to, the global spread of communism as was the conservative speaker. In one passage, the liberal — even if not exactly endorsing the domino principle — does not oppose confronting Chinese aggression in South Vietnam:
We sometimes forget that the Vietnam War was part and parcel of LBJ’s liberalism, often retrospectively associating liberalism mainly with anti-war protest.
As referred to above, in our phone conversation, Harold said that both his early conservatism and later liberalism rejected the Soviet model.
ALSO ON AND BY BHS ALUMS