Fear and the Tea Party

“If there is a price to be paid for this, we will recover from a government shutdown, whether it’s a day, a week or two weeks … something will get resolved, we’ll recover from that as a country.  It’s a temporary inconvenience for a lot of people. But if Obamacare is ever implemented, we will never recover from that as a nation. We can never be a free people again.”  – Rep. Steve King (R – Iowa)

Steve King (R-Iowa) - definitely not to be confused with Maine's Stephen King!

Steve King (R-Iowa) – definitely not to be confused with Maine’s Stephen King!

Hyperbole is common in politics, but “we can never be a free people again”?   Really?

Every other industrialized state has a national health care system of some sort.   A few have single payer systems run by the government, but most have some kind of mixed system.   A comparison of diverse systems shows strengths and weaknesses of each, but the bottom line is that making sure everyone gets health care does not endanger freedom.  Quite the opposite!

When in the US you have 50 million uninsured, high levels of medical cost induced bankruptcy, and many poor not getting care because they fear collection agencies, we have a problem.    Add to that the fact that health care costs nearly 18% of GDP (compared to 8-10% in most other industrialized states – about 13% in Switzerland) it’s obvious that something has to be done.

The US health care system compares poorly with many others

The US health care system compares poorly with many others, but is by far the most expensive

So we have real problems with health care in America.   We pay more, don’t get more, and leave many people uncovered and scared to access care.    Now, perhaps Obamacare isn’t the best plan, but this radical “hostage taking” approach supported by tea party folk like Senators Cruz, and Lee and a variety of people in Congress makes no sense.

Instead of making their case to the public and hoping to get a Republican majority in the Senate and perhaps a Republican President in 2016, they’re acting like terrorists threatening to shut down the government and have the country go into default if they don’t get their way to stop or delay ‘Obamacare.’   That only makes sense if they fear that once implemented the system will work well and the public will like it.   Otherwise, they’d be smarter to let it fail on its own and then say “I told you so.”   At that point they could reform it or gut it, they’d have the political winds at their backs.   Their biggest fear seems to be that maybe it’ll work and become popular!

Or maybe it isn’t rational.   King’s quote seems over the top; wild rhetoric is usually a sign of emotion.   I believe that within the tea party and among people like Rep. King there is an ideological world view that says that America is becoming something different than what it was and what they think it “should be.”

Tea party support has dipped to 22%, a new low. Most Americans do not share that vision.

Tea party support has dipped to 22%. Most Americans do not share that vision.

So what should it be?   The tea party seems to have a romantic view of the 1980s.  Reagan was President, whites were the clear majority, social conservatism was on the rise, and the US was the dominant world power.   That is the world they knew and felt comfortable within.  Now, the world is strange.  A black man named Barack Hussein Obama is President.   The US fiasco in Iraq has shown the limits of American power in a post-Cold War multi-polar world.  The financial collapse of 2008, built on 30 years of growing debt and government deregulation destroyed the myth that somehow America’s economy was stronger than others in the West.   Gay marriage and changing social mores often shock them – as does the fact that changing demographics means minorities have a much stronger voice in the politics of the country.

It’s not just America that’s changed, but the world is changing.  Globalization is weakening sovereignty and creating interdependencies at a rapid pace.   The information revolution caused by the internet makes borders less relevant and democratizes knowledge, making old political practices obsolete.   The spread of weapons of mass destruction and the capacity of terrorists to deliver deadly blows undermines old military tactics.  Indeed, warfare of the future will likely be fundamentally different than in the past, military power isn’t what it used to be.

The tea party represents those who fear this new world.   That explains King’s hyperbole.  Fear.   The changes taking place threaten the core of what he’s used to, and thus he’s afraid his values will be in jeopardy.   He can’t truly believe Obama care will mean we can never be a free people, it’s part of a response to what they consider a broader assault on what they think America should be.

Fear also explains the antipathy towards Obama.   He represents and incarnates all that they see going wrong with the US.   A black man with a foreign sounding name, inexplicably getting elected to two terms, leading the country down a scary “socialist” path.    Obama is an establishment Democrat – the left wing of the Democratic party is upset with his centrism.  His health care plan was a compromise, less obtrusive than Nixon’s plan back in the early seventies.   There is nothing new or radical about Obama – except that he’s President in changing times, and the changes scare them.

Ironically, the changes they fear will be hastened if they shut down government or cause America to default.   That will further weaken and divide the polity, and despite their belief that they represent “real America,” their views are increasingly on the margin and will not shape the future.   But right now they have enough people in Congress to try to take the economy hostage and do real damage.   Hopefully Republican leaders like Boehner will have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to them.  Those most hurt by the tea party are conservatives trying to establish a vision of what conservatism must be about in these changing times.

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  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on September 30, 2013 - 05:59

    The Tea Party has the advantage by using fear in their attacks on their perceived enemies. Fear is a natural instinct we all have. Courage is not and thus there are fewer people to combat the forces of fear. Good leadership with courageous men and women keeps fear at bay but never overcomes it completely.

    Nice piece Professor.

  2. #2 by thenewamericanlondoner on October 1, 2013 - 17:19

    Excellent post, Scott. Living in the UK for the last decade, I really do wonder how any sane person can get behind this movement, let alone enough voters to put someone into power. Great difference between doing something out of fear and doing something from pure inspiration.

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