America’s season of rage and fear
Freedom in America will soon be a fading memory. American exceptionalism died on March 23, 2010. On that day, the United States started becoming just like any other country. Worse still, like a West European country. Socialism in the land of the free and the home of the brave!
In a nutshell, that’s how many conservatives see the health reform bill President Barack Obama signed into law on March 23, after a year of acrimonious debate. The language has been shrill and the superheated political temperature is reflected by worried headlines such as “The heat is on. We may get burned” (Wall Street Journal) or “Putting out the flames” (Washington Post).
Verbal venom is not restricted to radio talk shows or Internet rants that draw parallels between Obama and Hitler or Stalin. John Boehner, the leader of the Republican party in the House of Representatives, described the reform as Armageddon and a Republican congresswoman, Michelle Bachmann, voiced fears on national television for her country’s future because of the president’s “anti-American views.”
Today’s end-of-freedom arguments sound very much like the ideas set out in a 1961 speech by the late Ronald Reagan, then an actor working as a corporate spokesman, now venerated as a secular saint by many Republicans. “One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people,” he said, “has been by way of medicine.”
Reagan was raising the alarm against an early version of what became Medicare, the government-run health care programme for people over 65 which now has 45 million beneficiaries, most of whom rate it more highly than private health insurance, according to surveys. If the program were passed, Reagan warned, “behind it will come other federal programmes that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country. Until one day… we will awake to find that we have socialism.”
Medicare was passed in 1965. Dark warnings notwithstanding, the United States remained the engine of global capitalism. It is also the world’s only advanced industrial country without universal health care (except for the elderly), with more than 40 million uninsured for whom illness can mean financial ruin or early death.
In the hubbub, which is growing rather than subsiding, it’s worth noting that people arguing from opposite ends are coming to the same conclusion — health care reform is not the underlying reason for the anger vented against the government.
Example from the right, from radio host Monica Crowley: “Health care ‘reform’ was never about health care. It was about expanding government into every part of your life as an excuse to confiscate more and more of your private property, strip you of your constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and remake America into a two-bit, second-rate, debt-laden European socialist backwater.”
Example from the left, from New York Times columnist Frank Rich: “The… health care debate is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled American in 1964.”
That’s when the Civil Rights Bill ended segregation and black Americans were no longer required to sit in the back of the bus, drink from separate water fountains, or go to separate schools. It was, said Rich,”an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance”.
Another inexorable and immutable change has been underway for decades: demographics. Because of immigration, both legal and illegal, and the higher birth rate of immigrants, white Americans are projected to be a minority in the United States by 2042. According to the 2000 census (the 2010 count is under way now), white Americans have shrunk to a minority in 52 of the 100 biggest cities, including Los Angeles and Washington.
That demographic shift was paralleled by a rise in extremist groups on the right. Their number rose by more than 50 percent from 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks radicals. Most groups on the lunatic fringe are small in number and big on conspiracy theories but then, how many people does it take to blow up a building?
Late in March, FBI agents arrested nine members of a far-right group in raids in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio to scotch what a government indictment called a plot to kill a police officer and then bomb his funeral. In the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, they stand accused of conspiring to “levy war against the United States.”
The appeal of such groups is limited but some of their anti-government rhetoric is echoed at rallies of the fast-growing Tea Party movement. Named after the 1773 act of anti-British sabotage in Boston that hastened the American revolution, it is a diffuse, predominantly white grassroots movement whose followers range from fiscal conservatives and libertarians to people hoisting posters depicting Obama as Hitler.
The star speaker at the movement’s first convention, in February, was Sarah Palin, the darling of the Republican right. The movement hopes to draw a million followers to a protest rally in Washington on April 15, the day Americans have to file tax returns.
Outlook for the political temperature: high and rising.