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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Put on an ugly face

During the final vote on health care reform, the tea partiers gave America a spectacle as they toilet papered the Capitol, verbally and visually.  As members of Congress took to the Capitol balconies and the House floor to egg them on, the Republican Party abandoned its claim that the racist hate speech seen and heard was just a few angry folks exercising their freedom of speech by openly endorsing and applauding it.

An advantage to unfettered free speech is that people eventually put on display their true motives and character and we find out what and who they really are.  The   health care debate has been a revelation of an aspect of America that has always existed and has always threatened its true freedoms and protections. In 1935, as the Nazis took over Germany and paralyzed much of Europe, Sinclair Lewis wrote a satirical novel, later produced as a play, titled It Can't Happen Here.  It was about how a president with dictatorial ambitions manipulated a gullible populace and seduced them into accepting totalitarian measures by exploiting ignorance and stupidity and venality.  The health  care debate has given us an It-Can't-Happen-Here moment.  The opponents of health care have been manipulated and driven by good old primal hate (a revelation of what GOP has come to stand for).  They accuse Obama of being every enemy America has ever had.  For many, the ploy is working. 

Prsident Obama won the primary and the election because he promised to rise above degraded level of partisanship that has characterized political discourse in recent decades.  His opponents determined that political retaliation was their platform and denied every attempt at conciliation and cooperation.  Their obstinacy and petulance was accompanied by an outpouring of hate propaganda that employed accusations which included racial slurs and charges of being, at once, fascist, Nazi, socialist, and all the bugaboo that could be dredged up from the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthy periods of history.  It has not been a time when the best that is thought and said has had much influence on the national discourse.  The KKK and McCarthy supporters killed people and destroyed lives.  False accusations and hate speech augments violence.  Every rhetorician knows that.  Violent language is the precursor of violent acts.

Congressmen were called racial names as they walked into the Capitol Sunday.  One was even spit upon.  Those congressmen who gathered on the Capitol balconies, of course, weren't fanning the flames of anger; they were merely promoting those better ideas they have for health care reform.  That's why at least ten Democratic congress people reported death threats.  Two had their home offices vandalized.  Violence driven by political forces can't happen here.  Seeing parallels with dark moments of history are, of course, just gratuitous accusations.  Unless the one who sees them knows the difference between rhetoric and linguistic war.

Primal anger, which boils up from the reptilian cortex, can find outlets other than violence.  It can be expressed on the Capitol floor in promises to repeal the health care law.  And it can go to court.

Fourteen state attorneys general have signed on to take the health care bill to federal court to challenge its Constitutionality. The party-line anger and tactics aside, they do have a point to pursue.  Their case will focus on the part of the health care bill that mandates everyone to buy health care insurance.  Their position is that this mandate is not sanctioned in the Constitution and, therefore, violates the states rights to do the business to be determined by the states.

On a non-legalistic level, the question concerns whether the federal government can force the citizens to buy something.   President Obama raised this very question during his campaign.  John Dorschner of the Miami Herald relates that Obama was advised to campaign on such a mandate:

Obama was opposed to an individual mandate, preferring instead strong requirements that employers be required to provide coverage. ``I'm not sure how ready the country is politically to accept the overall mandate,'' Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University physician and advisor to Obama, told The Miami Herald during the campaign.

But the Miami Herald piece goes on to relate how many Republicans advocated the mandate during the campaign:

 "The truth is this is a Republican idea," said Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association. She said she first heard the concept of the "individual mandate" in a Miami speech in the early 1990s by Sen. John McCain, a conservative Republican from Arizona, to counter the "Hillarycare" the Clintons were proposing.

McCain did not embrace the concept during his 2008 election campaign, but other leading Republicans did, including Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.

Seeking to deradicalize the idea during a symposium in Orlando in September 2008, Thompson said, "Just like people are required to have car insurance, they could be required to have health insurance."

Among the other Republicans who had embraced the idea was Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts crafted a huge reform by requiring almost all citizens to have coverage.

"Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate," Romney wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2006. "But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay. A free ride on government is not libertarian."

Romney was referring to the federal law that requires everyone to be treated in emergency rooms, regardless of their ability to pay.
 Dorschner points out that the idea was originated by a conservative economist during the 1980s and was embraced and advocated by groups of business executives and health care organizations.

This background and the behavior of the Republicans suggest strongly that the hatred being fanned is not merely opposition to the health care bill.  The racist and hateful rhetoric speaks of deeper, primal angers that do not emanate from the rational and moral part of the cortex.

The courts are a better place to exercise those angers.  But I would not bet they will be confined to that venue.  There is a liberal and you-know-what in the White House.  And an impassioned factions want their country back.  Their country was populated by men in white sheets and hunters of communist witches.

Of course, a replaying of the Spanish Civil War can't happen here.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States