Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Political Labels 101: A Lesson for Republicans and Tea Baggers

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

I am a big believer in open political debate. While my views may be solidly progressive, I have the utmost respect for anyone interested in making honest arguments as to how to proceed on the issues of the day. I admire Jurgen Habermas's view of democracy requiring a public sphere in which citizens come to the table not just with arguments for their side, but with an open mind to hear the views of opponents.

I was reminded of how far the right wing approach is from this ideal when I read that Sarah Palin was tweeting about death panels again.

I absolutely acknowledge that a fair debate on health care (or any issue, really) can be had. I know that my progressive beliefs may not provide the best answer to every problem in every situation. But what I have no patience for is the outright lies and ignorance, as well as the dangerous accusations, being injected into our national consciousness. And what's worse is that the mainstream media has done virtually nothing to point out the simple and obvious explanation as to why these charges are outrageous.

Here is an example of a functional and positive (but, unfortunately, fictional) debate on health care reform:

Pro: The current health care system is broken. A growing amount of our gross domestic product is going to health care costs. More than 50 million Americans have no health insurance. We have a moral obligation to provide medical care for Americans, something nearly every Western democracy does. And in doing so, we can help the economy by removing (or lessening) the health care burdens on Americans and employers.

Anti: It would be nice to cover more Americans, but it is not a moral obligation. We have limited resources as a nation, and we just can't afford to provide everyone with everything. Our national debt is high, and we are coming out of a recession with limited recovery of jobs so far. It's not the place of the federal government to provide health care to the country's citizens. Other countries may do so, but the United States has always been a market-based country that allows entrepreneurs to innovate. If health care costs get too high, someone will figure out a way to do it better and cheaper, and that person will not only be successful, but the American people will benefit.

This is a fair exchange of ideas. It gives citizens two points of view to consider, both with pure motives from the proponents. Americans can then choose which way they think is the best way to move forward.

Of course, that hasn't happened.

On September 9, while addressing a joint session of Congress, President Obama made this argument:

"The plan I'm announcing tonight would meet three basic goals. It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance for those who don't. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government."

The responses?

Well, we had a siting member of the House of Representatives yell "You lie!" during the president's address.

We had all kinds of lies and fear-mongering from the right, featuring outrageous claims of doom if health care reform passed (I collected a few of the egregious examples here).

And for the last year, we have had vile comparisons of Obama to everyone from Lenin and Stalin and Hitler, along with charges that he was a socialist bent on bringing down capitalism. (How can any reasonable person not be disturbed by this sign?)

I fully understand that some of you are saying right about now, "Of course the tea baggers are morons and don't know their history. Duh." Agreed. But the mainstream media isn't making this basic point. They show the images of the protests on television, but they provide no context. And it matters, since it legitimates the ridiculous anti-Obama and anti-health care arguments that make no sense.

And none of this is going away any time soon. Yesterday, Palin tweeted about health care reform: "R death panels back in?" This bit of craziness came from the Republican party's most recent vice presidential nominee, not from an ignorant, hasn't-read-a-newspaper-in-her-life, religious fanatic tea bagger. Uh, wait. I guess actually it came from someone who is all of those things. Palin, nevertheless, is a national figure, a legitimate candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, and a right-wing icon big enough to sell more than five million copies of a work of fiction (that she mistakenly calls a memoir), Going Rogue. The death panel ridiculousness can be judged to be the top lie of 2009, but Palin happily tweets about it like it was fact.

So, since the mainstream media refuses to set the record straight, and with health care reform winding its way to a (hopefully) successful conclusion, I thought I'd offer a basic lesson on political labels in the health care context.

Fringe Socialist: According to the platform of the Socialist Party USA, all private health insurance companies should be immediately abolished and be replaced by government-funded health care "controlled by democratically elected assemblies of health care workers and patients." Also, private pharmaceutical companies would be abolished in favor of "public ownership and worker and community control of the pharmaceutical industry." Finally, the socialists call for "full community decision-making regarding the creation, organization or elimination of public health care facilities."

Progressive: The platform of the Green Party USA calls for: "A single-payer National Health Program to provide free medical and dental care for all, federally financed and controlled by democratically elected local boards." Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) called for the extension of Medicare to everyone.

Mainstream Democratic: The public option is not a progressive or socialist plan. Rather, it was a compromise developed as a way to provide coverage to uninsured Americans without putting the health insurance companies out of business, and without going to a full, government-run, single-payer system.

Centrist: Considering how few true centrists remain in American politics, it is hard to pin down a centrist position without being cynical. My first instinct would be to say that on health care, a centrist is a Democratic senator from a conservative state who agrees to a watered down health care bill in exchange for subsidies funneled to his or her state. But, if I put my cynicism aside, I guess I would say that the centrist position is finding a way to cover uninsured Americans without damaging the economic interests of the beneficiaries of the current failing system (health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, etc.).

Mainstream Republican: Like the centrists, I haven't seen many mainstream Republicans in Congress, so it's hard to nail down a position. My cynical take on the mainstream Republican position: Pretend to care about health care reform, but vote against anything that actually changes the status quo (I'm looking at you Sen. Snowe and Sen. Collins). But if you go to the source, the Republican position is to oppose government funding of health care and any major changes to the status quo, except to support limited consumer protections in areas such as banning insurers from rejecting patients with preexisting conditions and improving the portability of insurance, and to bring down costs through state innovations.

Fringe Reactionary: "You lie!" Health care reform could "cost you your life." A public option is "gonna kill people." "I don't have to read it or know what's in it. I'm going to oppose it anyways." Health care reform "rations health care so that our citizens are withheld important and potentially life-saving treatments."(All statements of sitting Republican members of Congress.) And, of course, the charges that Obama is a communist/fascist/Nazi.

Considering Obama did nothing to push the public option in the Senate, cut deals with the drug companies and health insurers, and never suggested a single-payer system, it's pretty clear that there is no valid argument to make that he is a socialist (or a Nazi, either, since if he was, he would have to send himself, his wife, his kids, his chief of staff, his chief strategist, and numerous members of his staff and cabinet to concentration camps; I'm not being flip, I'm just appalled at how little the right wing Obama attackers know about history, and how insensitive some of the charges are).

In fact, going down the scale, you would find that Obama isn't a progressive or even a mainstream Democrat. His approach to health care reform has been closest to the centrists (but I think his motive was pragmatism, not to line the pockets of the health insurers and pharmaceutical companies).

And the bill that is emerging from the Senate fits comfortably into the centrist position, too.

Again, I'm sure many readers will think I am being trivial here, but I firmly believe that the narratives in the country on Obama and health care have been greatly distorted, in no small part because of the mainstream media's legitimization of ridiculous charges by the the right. Sometimes, even if it seems silly, it's helpful to point out simple facts and demonstrate how ridiculous these charges are.

I was quick to pillory George W. Bush for his utter incompetency and disregard for democracy, but I manged to do it without calling him a Nazi or comparing him to Stalin. I engaged in what, I think, Habermas would agree was the kind of arguing over public policy that allows a democracy to function. Little coming from the right at this moment in time would fulfill that role. All we hear are lies, scare tactics and propaganda. Since the mainstream media won't do their basic job function of reporting how idiotic these claims are, I will have to write articles like this one, silly or not.