Thursday, August 13, 2009

Understanding the Town Hollerers

I'm going to start off with a few assumptions: A) Most of these people are not idiots, B) Most of them are well-meaning and compassionate, C) Most are probably even politically moderate & D) My ideas are better than theirs.

OK - come on, who doesn't agree with that last one.

So, the question then becomes - why do they feel the way they so passionately do? On the basis of much of what I have heard, my hunch is that most of this isn't even specifically about health care. It is an amalgam of very high levels of federal spending, much of which has gone either to bank or auto bailouts, or nebulous future government projects. I think they have had no real problem with education, or war, or medicare, or moderate social spending in the past.

But they look at the dire straights the economy is in, and then see the government borrowing large amounts of money at a time when common sense tells you you need to cut back. They see Democrat health care "reform" as an added, luxury expense that at best we can't afford, and at worst will actually make their health care worse.

If they are neither dumb, mean, or even radical, then where are they coming from? Why can't they connect the dots they way that I do and end up agreeing with me? It all seems so obvious!

Well, except that I don't quite think it is. I think my ideas, while logical and sound, are actually quite radical. Well, let me rephrase that. I think they have potentially radical implications. Yet oddly enough, they are really no more radical than the ideas undergirding over a century of American political, social and economic thought. It is as if they have slowly, quietly been working away behind the scenes, providing the secure foundation from which popular American thought has flowered, yet through a sustained lack of analysis is now so forgotten as if to be unrecognizable.

The essence of this popular rage is simply a fear that government has gone too far. Those on the far right have always felt this. They have never believed in government. They would love to see its over-reach stripped bare. Their position is highly principled and logically very consistent.

But these town hall folks are not the radical right. They would hate to see government all but removed from public life. And yet much of their rhetoric matches exactly what the right has been shouting for years. Socialism! Fascism! Don't distribute my hard-earned wealth! This apparent oxymoron is best summed up by (as I have noted before) the purported words at a recent protest: Don't let the government get its hands on my medicare. One could add to this list schools, social security, roads, parks, clinics, etc.

They do indeed believe in the good that government can do, and has been doing, all their lives. But they have somehow been living in a fantasy world where the government actually doesn't exist. Elderly people magically don't starve to death alone in their apartments. Children are magically offered an education though 12th grade. Bridges repair themselves. Parks are tended to and medication for the mentally ill appears out of thin air.

Then suddenly the economy is on the brink of collapse, and the government roars in (supported mind you, by very well-developed and reasoned rationale) to help. I think for many this was a total shock. They had been living under all these assumptions about the modern world that are actually philosophically quite radical. When forced to make decisions based upon these views, they realized how radical they had become. Or better said, how radical the political mainstream had appeared to have become.

Because if government sponsored health care is socialism, then many more things are. If progressive taxation and social spending are fascist, well then our tax code has been very fascist for a very long time. I assume the radical (economic) right has indeed thought out the logical conclusion of their positions on a truly free market economy. That no one ever describes this future world is evidence of how removed it is from the mainstream.

For if we truly believed that each man was entitled to his own earnings, and was constitutionally (or by whatever higher-power you so presume) subject to only a minimum level of taxation, then America would be a radically different place. I've read amusing libertarian proposals for how things might look similar, owing to fabulous constructs involving great feats of heroics on the part of businesses who have somehow chanced upon perfect alignment of the public good with the private.

But in general no one is seriously proposing anything but minor policy adjustments. To listen to the rhetoric now being trumpeted from the town halls, one would think that Democratic representatives are the only things separating America from communist... err, USSR. Yet were any politician to campaign on a platform espousing policy positions in line with true free-market libertarianism, they would be laughed off the campaign trail.

Or would they? Maybe we have indeed, in the words of another recent town hall protester, "awakened a sleeping giant." Of course, this sleeping giant has truly been sleeping a very, very long time. In fact, I'm not sure it was every quite awake. At least not after accounting for the great social and technological transformations of the past 150 years which have enabled us to enjoy a level of common prosperity only dreamed of by the founders, and basic social safety nets have become not only possible but intrinsic to a modern, civilized ethos.

But it may possibly be that American politics is in for a dramatic swing to the extreme right, with the resulting dismantling of every state and federal social or common good program we have known and depended upon in our lifetime. I almost wonder, by the degree to which this sentiment is borne in stubborn hostility, that only such a transformation may be what it takes to show these people the world they intend to promote.

But, ever the optimist, I doubt it. I think the economy has people scared out of their wits. And they are being forced to digest in a matter of months political ideas which have been brewing in the Western world for centuries. It may have been wrong to try and push health care reform now. It may have been wrong to have relied on the ability of the American public to grasp all the philosophical and policy issues involved to the degree that that they would be able to fully appreciate the sensibility of the proposal's logical coherence.

We are, after all, Americans. What we lack in contemplation we make up for in feeling. I just worry that this all may be catching up with us. And that before we know it we will be forced to remove so much of what so many have worked so hard to build.

1 comment:

  1. Your question about timing may be apposite: tough times can make people both more selfish and less willing to accept new things---what is generally called "The 'Sixties" was associated with near-decades of historically amazing prosperity.

    How the New Deal, then? I think that it was because things were so very bad that people were willing to accept changes that seemed extreme, but less so than the consequences of not changing...particularly, rich people were scared enough of a revolution that though they screamed, they allowed the changes to come in. Add to that the fact that even though the government took on more power than it had ever done before (when not killing Indians or shooting strikers), it was compared to the outright-dictatorial governments that had sprung-up at the same time and so didn't seem so bad.