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.