The battle over President Obama's health care initiative has been noteworthy for its opponents' frenzied rhetoric. Of course people may reasonably disagree on the plan or simply oppose it. But outlandish and deceptive language does more than distort. It pushes the negotiated "center" much farther to the right and focuses media attention on a disproportionately noisy opposition. It also makes the less blatant deceptions of Republican legislators, which have been legion in the debate, seem reasonable by comparison.
This is a special type of American fanaticism. Unless we appreciate its virulence, proponents of progressive reform will continually underestimate its role in determining public policy. In the health care debate, the presence of an extreme right wing enables establishment interests opposed to reform to define their own intransigent opposition as the "reasonable center". This provides a cover for the self-interest and disinformation that these corporations, lobbyists, and major news outlets have been promoting because they seem reasonable in comparison to the extremist positions that garner so much media attention.
This fanaticism has deep roots in American history, but since World War II it has been brought to a fine boil in large part due to:
1) The reaction to integration and abortion rights. The former drove many whites to pull their children from public schools and to see the federal government as violating their most devoutly tended social pathologies. The United States is less racist now than it was in the 1950s and 1960s and it may be hard to imagine how virulent were yesterday's segregationists, born and raised in Jim Crow America. For them, segregation defined social and kinship bonds, privilege and status, honor and belonging,and racial separation was seen as one of God's core principles. The new segregated schools became hotbeds of an American fundamentalism that, even if some members abandoned their racist legacy, transferred its passion and resentment to other political battlefields, especially abortion and gay rights. The fantastical rhetoric, coded language, vicious personal attacks, and self-righteous paranoia evident in the health care debate were cultivated in response to integration, abortion, and gay rights. And that frothing frenzy is there to be used again, the next time it is deemed useful.
2) Right wing media noise. Since Ronald Reagan's presidency, the transfer of wealth to the richest Americans has funded a rabid right-wing presence in the mainstream media. It's an old tactic: use the extreme right to oppose liberal initiatives while pushing the "center" farther right. That's why moderately conservative democrats like Bill Clinton or the Barack Obama we've seen as president can be defined as committed liberals. For example, when Obama suggested income taxes for the wealthy far lower than we had under Republican President Eisenhower in the 1950s (maximum rate - 87%!) or even those of Reagan's 1981 Economic Recovery Tax (maximum rate 50%), he was called a communist. The Rush Limbaughs and other purveyors of hate are mere tools whose bosses point them at a target so they can open the taps of vitriol and fear.
3) Tough economic times and eight years of war. Insecurity and hopelessness fuel fear and paranoia. The veneer of civilization is thin and crisis and distress peel it off like bad paint. In today's America, as it peels, the first things uncovered are the paranoid demonologies that have been brought to a boil in American reactionism over the past five decades.
The crazy thing is, times are tough in part because of the cost of health care. It's not just those without coverage who suffer, but those with coverage whose costs are rising while coverage is trimmed back. The health care system itself is under tremendous stress and is woefully inadequate in many parts of the country.
The Obama administration adopted an instant position of compromise while mildly reproving protesters for being overly negative. Norman Ornstein in The Washington Post (9/1) makes a thoughtful argument that Obama and his staff are skilfully navigating the political mine-fields of health care reform. They are willing to yield some tactical points while shepherding a bill through rounds of negotiation that will eventually result in a decent law.
Perhaps this is true. I'm not so sure. I think the nation needs a direct, forceful message that meets the extremists' fervor head-on. The President and Congressional leaders must fight for something, not simply settle. Neither the sunny language of the campaign trail nor the cautious rhetoric that treats lunacy as a reasonable point of view, will do the trick. The only way to counteract irrational, overwrought belief is with a narrative of equal power. You may not convince your most rabid opponents, but you can rally your own forces and win over the undecided.
I would like to see the President and proponents of reform:
1) Depict the short-falls of the current system. Speak directly to the working people whose coverage has been cut and lost, whose expenses are rising. Already we have only a portion of the health insurance our unionized parents and grandparents had, at a much higher cost. Let the American people know that the health plan is about the vast majority of us.
2) Make the economic case. The costs of timely, thorough medical care are offset by the savings achieved by maintaining good health, treating illness before it worsens, reducing absenteeism at work, improving children's performance at school, etc.
3) Act like a majority party. The Blue Dog Democrats, if they want the benefits of belonging to the majority party, need to at least cooperate in moving the bill along and raising the level of debate. If they become merely obstructionist, they need to realize that within the bounds of party politics, they will pay a price in election funding or in Party support of primary challengers. However they vote, they should play a constructive role in moving the plan towards a vote. Use the legislative process to counter Republican threats of a filibuster.
4) Use terse, firm language to counteract the fear-mongers without getting caught up in charges and counter-charges. Clearly lay out how opponents are distorting the debate.
5) Use the numbers. Advertise them. Repeat them over and over. Whether it's the 70% who support a plan, the millions of working Americans losing coverage, the fact that 85% of those without coverage are working citizens, etc., pound away at those numbers and make it clear to the American people that those numbers include them.
6) Appeal to a vision of America as a nation whose mission - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - speak to its ability to provide a decent life for all its citizens.
One needn't stoop to the reactionaries' level, but political softball won't work either. We need to challenge the basic assumptions behind the well-funded lies and well-fanned fears that have influenced the debate thus far. Publicly revealing the vested interests of many of the corporations, lobbyists, and politicians who oppose a plan may be politically impossible for the President. However, if he can neutralize those interests' shock troops while making a compelling, moving case in favor of reform, the opposition will have to elevate its own arguments and we all will benefit. The President's case must be as clear, moving, and unrelenting in its commitment to a postive vision of America as the fanatics' rants are in their commitment to destroying the Obama presidency and resisting any attempts by government to ameliorate the pain and suffering of American citizens. If the President can achieve that, he will not be the only winner in the health care debate - the vast majority of Americans will be as well.