Racism or Generational Transformation?

Frank Rich, in a recent New York Times column, argues that the anger over health care reform isn’t really about health care, but about race.   That doesn’t mean that people who oppose health care reform are driven by race, only that the level of anger and rage — Rich describes the frothing Karl Rove, and John Boehner’s “hell no” on the House floor as the official expressions of anger, as well as the wild behavior of the “tea partiers.” — are provoked by something deeper.   Indeed, the predictions of Armageddon and the collapse of “the American idea” are so over the top that it’s hard to imagine health care being the sole reason.  After all, every other advanced industrialized state has a health care system covering everybody, and all of them with more government control than the one we just passed.

Rich compares the rage here with that of the passing of the civil rights act, which generated far more anger than did passage of Medicare.  And, to be sure, it wasn’t lost on Nancy Pelosi that protests against her frequently took the form of  “retire Madam Speaker.”   “I don’t think they are using my title out of respect,” she remarked.  A black President and a female Speaker of the House lead a major reform effort, and the right wing sees red.

I suspect, however, race and gender are not directly the cause of the rage, though they do matter.   What’s happening is the country is undertaking a fundamental transition away from the kind of culture we had thirty or forty years ago, which was dominated by a white middle class ethos, as minorities remained on the margins.   In some ways it is a maturation of the rage that took place during the late sixties, as the civil rights movement and Vietnam led youth to question government authority and fight “the establishment.”

That generation provided radicals on the one hand, and the silent majority, as Nixon called them, on the other.   The radicals put issues like equal rights for women, abortion, anti-segregation, affirmative action, and real economic power to blacks on the agenda.  The silent majority considered the issues, rejected the radicals, but agreed with many of their ideas.  The result was that what appeared to be a revolt turned into a real shift in culture.   It was ushered in by President Nixon, who (painfully slowly) extricated the US from Vietnam, and with the Democrats passed a sweeping range of social welfare reforms, creating the basis of the modern US social welfare system.   Nixon even tried to pass health care reform, with ideas arguably to the left of what just passed.   Nixon embodied the new consensus — winning an election in 1972 with significant support from the left and the right, moderating the conflicts of the previous years.

The right wing, alienated by this new consensus at first, were placated in 1980 when Ronald Reagan found a way to mesh conservatism with the new, more liberal culture.   Reagan did not cut back on the political changes of the sixties and seventies — the so called great society — nor did he govern in a purely conservative way.   Spending increased, taxes increased, immigration reform passed (an amnesty program, no less) and government emerged bigger and more powerful than ever.    His rhetoric appealed to the right’s desire for an America “of old,” focusing on core values of family, God and country, an appeal to individualism and the ‘American spirit.’

Reagan’s “revolution,” however, was Pyrrhic.    His rhetoric and nationalism placated the right, who wanted a reason to feel back in control.   His tax cuts shifted the burden from the wealthy to the middle class, but debt driven growth made everyone think it was onward and upward (just don’t mention the steel industry and bleeding of industrial jobs).  Big business liked how they were deregulated and how labor unions were decimated.   But even as Clinton continued this “new consensus” with welfare reform and deregulation, he also reflected the cultural change brought about in the 60s and 70s.   Try as they might, the right could not make claims that Clinton was a ‘draft dodging druggie anti-American womanizer’ stick.   The public really didn’t care.   Even after the Lewinsky scandal, he left office with high approval ratings.

As all this was happening, though, the changes of the 60s and 70s were having economic and demographic impacts.   Minorities were increasing in size, and their political perspectives, usually to the left of center, were gaining prominence.    Ideas of equal rights, social change, and rejection of tradition grew, even during the Reagan and Bush years.  By the dawn of the new century, the culture was nearing a tipping point, whereby the revolution of the sixties would mature into a very different notion of politics and governance, and a new politics.

The Iraq war and the economic collapse of 2008 (caused by the policies begun in the eighties) created a crisis that allowed a politician of the new generation, Barack Obama, to come out of virtually nowhere and win the Presidency.   He reflects these new cultural ideals and a desire for social change, continuing the process begun in the sixties.   Many who yearn for “the America we grew up in” or “to go back to America’s values” are remembering that earlier time when the culture was different, demography was different, and the economy far less complex and globalized.   It is nostalgia, but a nostalgia steeped in fear, fear that their country changing to something strange and perhaps dangerous.   What does it mean to be an American?   Hence the birthers.   Can a black man who grew up for awhile in Indonesia and whose father was African, and whose name is Barack Hussein Obama really be an American?  What kind of American?   He doesn’t reflect the values and traditions we’ve always associated with leadership!

It’s not overt racism, but race amplifies the differences between Obama and his politics, and the nostalgia for a past era.  Take a broader view though, and this is nothing new.   A while back I compared the current era to that of the wild west, during the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s youth.   Now that was a time of freedom — and risk.   Most people would not want that life style for themselves and especially not their children.   We are a fundamentally different culture than we were then, and the change has been constant for the last century.

President Obama represents a generational transformation, one that is probably inevitable.   Yet he and the Democrats don’t really know how to reflect these changes politically, it’s a new terrain with new challenges.   That’s why the Republicans need to avoid the politics of rage, driven by nostalgia and fear, and think critically about how their values can guide a country more diverse, complex, and interconnected than any before.    The politics of rage lead to fascism, and most Americans — including almost all Republicans — don’t want to go there.   Yet they do need to come up with alternatives to engage Obama and the Democrats, who are literally making it up as they go, trying to solve extremely complex problems in a country divided and in a state of transformation.

Right now folk like Palin, Coulter and Breitbart speak to the gut, and arouse those who prefer to have enemy images to attack, and fear change.   Others like Romney seem timid, wanting simply to find a path to power, willing to say whatever they have to say.   Scott Brown and Paul Ryan are rising stars in the GOP, and seem to have an intellectual grasp on the issues that mixes a strong challenge to Obama and the Democrats with constructive criticism rather than rage.  In any event, no one can turn back the clock.   We’re not going back to the 1950s (or even the 1980s), and I don’t think anyone really wants to.    Soon whites will be less than 50% of the population, the demographic changes will have profound political implications.   Right now the ‘teapartiers’ are driven by a desire to stop these changes, and that is impossible.   Race plays into this, but racism is not the main cause.

The Republicans need leaders who can do what Reagan did, and find a way to make peace with a changed culture, and bring the conservative vision into the 21st century.   Yet they need to avoid the mistakes of Reagan, whose policies started a continual growth in deficits and debt, and yielded a “something for nothing” mentality.  The longer the country is enmeshed in anger and partisanship, the more likely we’ll all sink — Republican, Democrat and independent alike.

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  1. #1 by John on March 30, 2010 - 14:18

    Hi Scott,
    As usual, this is a reasonable, thoughtful and nuanced argument. I’m curious to see the response…because we can’t seem to make nuanced arguments in this political environment. I think “You’re either with us or against us” has taken over the political spectrum.

    I think what you call for is correct, I’m just not sure how we get there. Take Olympia Snowe, who I’ve always thought of as the last example of the “fiscal conservative, social liberal.” Where is she these days? Pushed to the margins, because you have to be one or the other now.

    I like to say that I haven’t become more liberal (American definition); the parties have become more polarized. It’s a frustrating time.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on March 30, 2010 - 19:22

      Yeah, and the polarization has a way of deepening itself. Is this a phase? Is this the result of mass media politics? Are we going to tear ourselves apart as the country declines, unable to get together and solve problems? After watching a Jon Stewart parody of Glenn Beck I watched Beck’s show for the first time. I couldn’t believe the rhetoric, it seemed so over the top…yet a lot of people buy it. Yes, strange and frustrating times…

  2. #3 by classicliberal2 on March 31, 2010 - 02:16

    The part race plays in the insane political environment is that it’s just another way in which Obama can be made to appear like some alien being with alien values who is trying to impose his will on a public that rejects it. What we’re seeing now is just the latest chapter in the long-running disintegration of the American right. The American conservative elite dropped out of legitimate politics many years ago, finding it more politically advantageous to embrace and play to the least stable elements of their base. It’s all about rage and emotionalism, and it doesn’t matter if every word of it flies in the face of reason or if not a word of it is true. The result is that the fringe, the nutters, the reactionaries took over. As only one side-effect of this, the dimmest, most ill-informed half-wits have become the Republican “mainstream.”

    There’s been a large amount of polling on this in the last year or so, most of it conducted by Research 2000. Work by Public Policy Polling aimed at shooting down the R2K results ended up not only confirming them, but making it look slightly worse. Just last week, a Harris poll found that large majorities of Republicans believe Obama is, among other things, a socialist and a Muslim. A slight sign of “progress” suggested by Harris: the number of Republicans who are birthers is down to just under half (it was around 60% in all previous polls, but it may be a methodology difference).

    At this moment, real politics don’t exist on the right. All that exists is the professional wrestling version of “politics” that comes from venues like Fox News and talk radio (I was writing about this only a few days ago).

    The Obama years are giving a glimpse at how bad things have gotten on the right since the Clinton administration. Given that those years led to the rise of the militia movement, the OK City bombing, the use of murder as a weapon by the “pro-life” movement, and, ultimately, an attempted coup against an elected government, it’s difficult to imagine things could have gotten worse, but they have. Armed “patriot” (read: fascist) groups are on the upsurge again, but far more telling is the fact that the insanity that used to be mostly confined to that fringe is now the conservative “mainstream,” and has become the element of the base to which Republican politicians and the conservative elite play.

    When their masters were telling them Democrats were trying to bring in government death panels to kill old people, the ludicrousness of the charge didn’t even give them pause–that’s what they’ve been taught to believe about liberals, and they’ve swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. And that’s precisely the “thinking” that leads people to fill trucks with fertilizer and blow things up.

    The conservative elite don’t care about the environment they’re fomenting, either. In the wake of death threats, vandalism, and at least one murder attempt by the nut right aimed at those who voted for the health care bill, the head of the DNC suggested to the head of the RNC that they issue an uncontroversial joint statement calling for civility, calm, and unconditionally condemning the intimidation, RNC chief Michael Steele flatly refused to go along with it. No prominent member of the conservative elite, in fact, has unconditionally condemned what happened. Not one. Every one who has spoken about it has made excuses for the behavior, has suggested it was being overblown by the Democrats, and/or has said the Democrats are only trying to get some political advantage out of it.

    There are no responsible statesmen on the right.

    They’re not going to do a damn thing except continue right along the same course until some “patriot” gets listens to their voices in his head and decides to pick up a rifle or a bomb or some other implement of death and “save” the U.S. from the Kenyan Muslim socialist and his allies. And then, they’ll sit around and become self-righteously angry at the very suggestion that they fostered the environment that led to the horror, just as they did after OK City.

  3. #4 by Josh on March 31, 2010 - 02:24

    Here are my thoughts/rants from a political science layman:

    Fear seems to play a huge role in the political climate right now. Folks on the right indeed fear “change” and attack those who want it. Liberals fear the possibility of not “changing”, so they attack those who reject their agenda. I’m sure individuals on both sides have some good reasons to fear.

    However, is it really worth getting so upset about public policy?

    Republicans, what’s the worst that will happen? Government will be a bit larger. Country singers will be inspired to write material lamenting the “loss” of their country. It will stimulate the recording biz, and Glenn Beck will be 10 times more theatrical/emotional!

    Democrats. Barack is a one termer and Republicans take charge. Our country will look like a total loser to the international community. It won’t be the end of the world…hopefully.

    I’m just tired of politicians who get so emotional about policy. They need to accept that whatever happens, the earth won’t blow up, your children won’t die, and that corporations or government will not socialize America.

  4. #5 by Eve on March 31, 2010 - 22:18

    Scott, I don’t think it’s race at all. I’m just so tired of how disagreement is pushed aside into categories of race or ignorance, when many of us who disagree with this ridiculous attempt at health care reform have intelligent areas of disagreement, none of which are about race or ignorance.

    For now I’ll give an example of one intelligent point of disagreement, which is on an ethical point. “Universal” health care means health care that is extended to all within a population or specific ‘world.’ In our terms, we would refer to universal health care to include all Americans. Fair enough. I am in favor of universal health care.

    What I avidly disagree with is that congress and the president pushed what they call a move toward universal health care on us, and they haven’t accomplished much of anything other than working in some new schemes that will garner more tax dollars, which is actually what they appear to be after. I write this because we already have two medical care systems financed through payroll deductions–Medicaid and Medicare–that could be expanded within an organizational scheme already in place, which could serve all Americans. But, no, that’s not what Congress did. They don’t actually want universal health care that applies to every single American citizen, from the president to congress and all the way down to the latest baby born or to the homeless man or to the addict or the single mom receiving TANF or to the middle-class factory worker.

    What we have, and what Congress just finished perpetuating, is a class-based system that caters to those with money and continues to hurt those without. For example, we merchant class folks with high incomes from small businesses are not going to be affected much at all, because if we have 50 or fewer employees we’re exempt. If you look at the statistics on those size businesses, they are the majority and make much of the money in this country. But it is the big corporations, the health care providers, and the working class and working poor who will be hit, because the working class and working poor who are too well paid to be exempted from purchasing health care will next be forced to pay it, or be fined. Only those with pitiable incomes who would also qualify for Medicaid are going to be exempt at the bottom. So Congress will tap all those twentysomethings who do not purchase health care, all the same ones who voted for Obama, and they’re going to be oh so shocked when their already small budgets must be squeezed even tighter to afford the $300 per month their new and wonderful health care costs them. The amount of ‘help’ they can receive from an employer, if the employer even falls into the correct category, isn’t impressive. Furthermore, many employers will be exempt. Besides that, most Americans still have health care.

    All the health care companies, insurers, and pharmaceutical companies and attorneys who make the money in our appalling system are not going to suffer much, for they are already paying out the nose and still manage to be wealthy. We will all find new ways to use our business dollars in tax deductible ways and in the meantime, health care will still not be universal and the system will still cater to the moneyed.

    I think it is a scandal and that’s just the beginning. I have read most of the bill and my objections, along with those of most of the other conservatives I associate with, are not based on ignorance, lack of education, racism, or any other -ism. A lot of us own our own businesses and have graduate educations and still object, and for good reason.

    We need to stop being “us vs. them” (Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, etc.) and be Americans. This division looks like it will last throughout Obama’s term and continue when/if the Republicans take the congress by storm next election… and then the backlash will be awful and what will we have accomplished?

    We still will not have universal health care as we OUGHT TO HAVE because doing something like that would be a truly ethical and caring decision for our nation, and to date all we have is a divisive movement among divisive people who don’t have the guts and love to burn it all to the foundations and do the right damn thing. That’s what I think, and I love my country.

    • #6 by classicliberal2 on April 1, 2010 - 01:20

      “…my objections, along with those of most of the other conservatives I associate with, are not based on ignorance, lack of education, racism, or any other -ism.”

      Scott can speak for himself, of course, but I’ll go so far as to point out that what he and Frank Rich (in the column that spurred Scott’s remarks) are talking about isn’t opposition to health care, but rather the insane degree of hatred and vitriol aimed at the bill by a lot of its critics, a degree of viciousness that suggests there’s something driving them that is a whole lot deeper than merely disagreement with some new policy.

      While you seem to suggest you’re a conservative, your critique of the new law comes from a liberal perspective (as does mine). As someone who seems to actually have a grasp of what it does and can express opposition to it in an informed and articulate manner (as you have here), you’re an exception–an extreme exception–to the law’s critics on the right, who have been content, throughout the entirety of the debate, to rant and rave about “socialism” and “government take-over” and “death panels” and all of that focus-group-concocted rot, without ever addressing what the bill actually does, or, indeed, demonstrating any knowledge of it at all. I’ve filled a lot of space on my own blog arguing against the bill, but my criticism was based on its substance. I searched for months in vain to find reasoned conservative opposition with which to express solidarity. It just wasn’t out there, not in any measurable degree.

      Scott isn’t caricaturing all opposition to the new law–he’s arguing (correctly) that there’s something more at work in the ferocity of some of that opposition. I perhaps differ with him (perhaps not) only in that, as someone who has closely followed the right for so many years, I don’t find that mystery ingredient to be any sort of mystery. It’s just a predictable outcome of trends that have been at work for decades.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on April 1, 2010 - 03:21

      It’s definitely a flawed bill. My view on this is very colored by the fact my wife is a CPA who works at a hospital, and just finished an MBA class on health care reform. We had long discussions about this, she asked about the politics going on, I asked about the impact of this particular bill. She doesn’t especially like the bill for numerous reasons, but ultimately the health care system is in such shambles that she thought it was an improvement enough to pass — so long as efforts are made to improve it. She’s not especially political, but she thought that the arguments made by the Republicans were over the top and silly — the socialism, end of the Republic, Armageddon,etc.

      I would hope that this is the start of an on going process, an ice breaker that will force changes as aspects of the bill will clearly not work as intended and need change. I would hope all sides look upon this as important to the country. The health care system we’ve had was crumbling — hearing about it from her, I realized it’s worse than I even thought.

      My preference is for a German style system — there insurance companies are private and compete, but can’t make profit, except on supplemental insurance. Competition is still vigorous, costs are contained, there are no waiting lists, and the system is very popular, even amongst conservatives (for reasons of ethics — my Christian Democratic friends in Germany are appalled by the American system — life is too important to be left to market mechanisms that favor the rich). In that sense, I see your objections in the spirit of conservatism in a more traditional sense, based on ethics rather than fear of regulation. German doctors consider themselves underpaid, but they still prefer their system to ours. Switzerland has an interesting model too – abit more expensive than the others, but cheaper than ours.

      Politically, I think the GOP wanted to use this issue to destroy Obama’s Presidency – Sen. DeMint said as much explicitly. They didn’t try to cooperate and play a role, except to just push GOP ideas to replace Democratic ones. That’s not compromise. I think that was a mistake. I would hope both sides come together, learn from other systems, and recognize that this bill isn’t a fix, even if it may be an improvement.

  5. #8 by John on April 1, 2010 - 14:56

    Scott, I also favor the German system. It does seem ludicrous that health insurance is a for-profit industry.

    I understand criticisms of the bill; they are numerous and generally valid. But here’s my hope: now health care becomes a a regular topic of converation AND policy. The Obama administration correctly emphasized the idea that if this bill failed, it could be a decade or more before we revisited it. History emphatically supports this notion.

    But now, we not only have some foundation for an improved health insurance system; we have a policy in place! It is unlikely to be repealed, but very likely to be tweaked repeatedly. Maybe not always for the good; but the foundation is there, and politicians can no longer ignore it.

    Call me naive, but I am optimistic that we are moving in the right direction.

  6. #9 by Scott Erb on April 1, 2010 - 21:54

    I think you’re right, John. In Political Science we always tell students “disagreement is good.” It makes politics necessary, and without disagreement you’re more likely to stagnate and not improve. But disagreement that is just competition between two groups creates division. Disagreement where each side listens to the other and tries to learn and be self-critical as well as other-critical is good.

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