09/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Insurance Lobby's Strategy: Class Warfare from Above

One of the most timeworn and tiresome tactics of the right is to accuse anyone who talks publicly about the widening gap between rich and poor, the tax privileges of the affluent, or any other morally significant economic issue of engaging in "class warfare." The device usually achieves its desired effect: the perpetrator cowers in fear and never makes the same mistake again.

Last month, Senator Ben Nelson borrowed from his Republican colleagues' playbook when he referred to the proposal out of the House to raise taxes on wealthy Americans to fund health care reform as "class warfare." If class antagonism is really a concern of Senator Nelson's, then he should take another look at the campaign being conducted by his friends in the insurance industry. The right wingers and their corporate backers are waging a political battle over health care reform that is socially divisive, rhetorically caustic, and possibly physically dangerous. Call it "class warfare from above."

At a recent town hall, Congressman Paul Broun, Republican of Georgia, stoked up the angry crowd before him by referring to a "socialistic elite" in Washington, DC conspiring to use pandemic disease or natural disaster as a pretext to declare martial law. It's easy to dismiss this kind of idiotic showmanship as fringe lunacy. But it benefits us more to understand it.

Whenever corporations have found themselves faced with real threats to their profit-making power, they have responded by fomenting social division and turning worker upon worker. It happened throughout the early history of the American labor movement, when politicians conspired with bosses to brand striking union workers as Communist agents of the Soviet Union. It happened in the 1970s when grape growers in California recruited Teamsters to break the picket lines of Cesar Chavez' farm workers. The tactic continues today, as right-wing Republicans and their corporate benefactors point to immigrant labor as the source of the economic insecurity of the working class, instead of the Wall Street magnates who have bankrupted the U.S. economy.

These town hall fiascos are simply more of the same. The insurance lobby and their proxies in the GOP are using red-baiting techniques that are as old as Communism itself to brand working Americans who support reform as "un-American." They're deliberately conflating the narrow interests of corporate behemoths with the cherished values of our American heritage, implying that those who threaten those corporate interests are in the service of some insidious and non-American ideology.

As throughout history, rather than speak for themselves, these insurance companies are channeling their propaganda through the more "credible" messengers of supposedly regular, everyday, outraged Americans. But as hostile and odious as many of these "protesters" are, they are not the real enemies of American working families. By the looks of them, most of these provocateurs are workers themselves, and will benefit greatly from reform, whether they know it or not.

Rather, it is the billionaire insurance executives who are bankrolling the effort who deserve our scrutiny. It is these corporate moguls who stand to gain by maintaining a system that generates profits by denying patients care, not uninsured town hall protesters who have to pass the hat to pay for their own care.

Whatever you think of the White House's approach to health care reform, President Obama has provided us with the chance to have a real national discussion on an issue of profound importance that has been neglected for 15 years. This is a far more important topic than the lunatic rants of misinformed zealots funded by corporate lobbying firms. We can't let the insurance lobby's latest tactic of distraction-by-proxy prevent us from reaching the working families of America. They stand to suffer too greatly from the failure of reform for us to be fooled by this ridiculous charade.