The always-excellent Steve Benen over at The Washington
Note Monthly (oops. sorry, Steve) offers a post detailing his assessment of the five types of opponents to health care reform, to wit:
- The Greedy: There’s a fairly small group of people who profit handsomely from the broken status quo. Regular Americans are getting screwed by the system, but The Greedy are getting rich. Reform puts their profits at risk, so they’re fighting back to protect their livelihood.
- The Partisans: If President Obama does what many presidents have failed trying to do, it will likely make him more popular and make his presidency successful. The Partisans care more about Republican gains than the national well being, so they’re fighting to prevent a major Democratic victory because it would be a major Democratic victory.
- The Tin-Foil Hats: If reform passes, the government will kill their grandparents, create “death panels,” lavish benefits on illegal immigrants, and mandate that ACORN volunteers live in your basement. The Tin-Foil Hats have active imaginations, and believe their own ridiculous conspiracy theories. They’ll benefit from reform, but the voices in their head discourage them from believing it.
- The Dupes: Probably the largest group in opposition to reform, The Dupes tend to believe what The Greedy, The Partisans, and The Tin-Foil Hats have told them. When confronted with accurate information, The Dupes suspect the media, Democrats, and their lying eyes aren’t to be trusted. After all, Sean Hannity wouldn’t lie to them, would he? Like The Tin-Foil hats, The Dupes stand to benefit from reform, but are skeptical because they don’t know who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.
- The Wonks: The smallest of the groups, The Wonks are conservatives who actually care about substantive policy details, have read the proposals, and believe there are better ways to improve the system. The Greedy, The Partisans, The Tin-Foil Hats, and The Dupes tend to ignore The Wonks, which is a shame.
A few thoughts of my own, after the jump:
I think Benen’s assessment is pretty accurate, overall. Only I’d add a couple of things which Benen didn’t discuss. First is the astonishing effectiveness of the setup. Rachel Maddow referred to this last night on MSNBC, as well. The way this functions in practice is that, as Benen says, the Greedy (who stand to benefit financially), the Partisans (who just loathe Obama and Democrats) and the Tin-Foil Hats (who are simply paranoid loonballs) combine to gin-up a toxic stew of misinformation larded with a heavy dollop of groundless fear, which in turn convinces the Dupes to attend the town halls (and populate the blogs, and deluge representatives with mail). But what’s genius about that setup is what Maddow alluded to last night: that most of the Dupes genuinely ARE the famous “real ‘Muricans.” In other words, the Dupes are people who aren’t typically political junkies like I am, and aren’t either certifiable nuts like the Tin-Foil hatters, or mendaciously self-interested plutocrats who benefit from the current, broken system like the Greedy, or professional Democrat-haters like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the Partisans. The Dupes are real people who’ve been, er, duped, into mouthing the words that originated with those three groups (and, much less frequently, the words of the Wonks).
Unfortunately, they aren’t aware that they’re dupes; they genuinely believe the oftentimes provably false nonsense that comes not from their own research and judgment, but straight from the mouths or pens of one of the former three groups. This makes them perfect vessels for those three groups. It saves them from having to be the only ones mouthing or writing those words, whether in interviews, op-ed pieces or at town halls. Most Americans can recognize a professional when they see one, and although many of the ideas the Dupes are parroting originated with a member of one of the three groups (Tin-Foil Hats, Greedy or Partisans), those words carry much less weight when someone like Newt Gingrich says them on “This Week.” In Gingrich’s mouth, these points are nothing more than the agenda-driven talking points of a well-known partisan hack – and one who was fined $300,000 for ethics violations by the House Ethics Committee, to boot. Gingrich may be a “thought leader” on the right, he may be many things, in fact. But one thing almost no one who even casually follows the news or politics considers Gingrich is “a regular guy.” He’s a partisan Republican, always will be. So virtually everyone, even Republicans, take Gingrich’s anti-health care reform arguments with a grain of salt (in my case, knowing a lot of Gingrich’s history, with a pillar of salt).
But when someone like the winsome Katy Abram says some of the exact same words (albeit less slickly and eloquently) to Arlen Specter’s face at a town hall, though? It’s wingnut gold, pure gold. The Partisans and Greedy and even the Tin-Foil Hats sit back and lick their chops in satisfaction. Why? Because it’s very, VERY difficult for supporters of health care reform to oppose someone like Abram (at least in comparison to opposing someone like Gingrich), without opening themselves up to charges of elitism or “hating America – or real Americans” (a favorite wingnut strawman). Whereas Gingrich has the typical alligator hide a politician must develop in order to survive, and he can be refuted directly and forcefully, push back too hard against someone like Abram, whether in print or directly in an interview, and the right-wing noise machine can (and predictably will) begin to shriek about Katy just wanting to exercise her First Amendment rights, and big, bad, evil, Soros-funded liberals trying to shut her up or humiliate her. Never mind the fact that, on an issue as crucial for both our citizens’ physical health and their (and the country’s) financial health as the current debate over health care reform it’s much more important to get a good bill passed than it is to avoid all possibility of appearing to have insulted a “real American” – no matter how silly or factually incorrect that specific “real American”s assertions are.
But, time and again, these are the tactics that the right-wing has used to such great advantage in recent years: oppose the Iraq war? You’re against the real America because you care more about abstract ideas and fuzzy international law than about the safety of your neighbors and fellow citizens. Support gay marriage (or even just don’t think it’s a big deal)? You’re against the real America because you are trying to destroy the family, which is one of the bedrocks of our society. And God help you if you actually direct your opposition – or even frustration – against a specific “real American” who’s voicing any of the above. Do that, and you’ve put a face and a name on the previously-nebulous “real America” you hate. You’ve instantly given the right-wing noise machine a toehold, a visible public face, to put on the issue and to demonize you with. Lambasting opponents by declaring them “against the real America” is powerful enough. But when they can show pictures of the sweet nuclear family (maybe with a disabled child, a la Sarah Palin) that opponents are supposedly “against?” Well, that’s when the Dupes get really riled up.
What Maddow pointed out, and what I want to echo, is that this is a very conscious strategy on the part of a very few skilled political operators. Most of them come from either the corporate sector, which has had to learn the ins and outs of politics in order to flourish in the political realm (and indeed in many cases to actually control the debate), or from the ranks of the GOP political arm, which after years of schooling in Lee Atwater/Karl Rove/Newt Gingrich-style attack/smear politics, has got the art of dirty tricks down pat. And this current manifestation of Greedy & Tin-Foil Hats & Partisans promulgating ideas and feeding them into the media, which reaches those who wind up believing those ideas, start to panic, and show up at town halls, scared and angry, is no accident. It’s a conscious – and very effective – strategy of having “real Americans” act as shock troops for agenda-driven, anti-progress political ideas and policies.
There’s only one other group I’d add to Benen’s “five types” above: the Media. Although, I’m not sure it really belongs on that list, because I don’t think you can credibly say that all of the media clearly belong in the “opposed to health care reform” category. However, without the media’s either agreement or laziness/ineffectiveness, the above formulation doesn’t work. When Partisans at the Heritage Foundation or Greedy lobbyists in the boardrooms and war rooms of corporations make up ideas like “death panels,” they have to have some mechanism for getting those ideas out to a wide enough audience to recruit some percentage of the people who hear them into being Dupes. How can they do that? Well, some of it these days can be done using the Internet – the great equalizer of direct Democracy. But the Internet is opt-in; one has to sit down at a computer and enter in the URLs of websites which contain these toxic, misleading and often outright false ideas. Not many “real Americans” spend their time cruising the Heritage Foundation’s web site, or reading back issues of medical lobbying groups’ newsletters online. No, the way the vast majority of people become Dupes for the Greedy and the Partisans is by hearing their ideas in the traditional media; primarily TV. Sure, talk radio like Rush Limbaugh, etc, help in this regard also. But Limbaugh suffers from the same drawbacks as a vessel that Newt Gingrich does: everyone knows where he stands, and takes what he says with a grain of salt as a result. But when the ideas of a Betsy McCaughey are distributed without challenge (at least initially) on major networks, when those ideas are discussed as if they have merit, instead of laughed off the air or exposed as the falsehoods they are, that’s when real people (some of them, anyway) become Dupes for the Greedy and the Partisans. In short, this very effective using of low-information Dupes as human (“real American”) shields in the health care debate would not be possible if the media were doing its job. The three links directly above are from FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and MediaMatters – which certainly don’t have the resources that a major network news outfit has. Yet they are all able to conclusively prove these ridiculous ideas like “death panels” false. If the major news media were doing its job before publishing the words of people like Gingrich and Rick Scott and Betsy McCaughey, this very effective attack would be impossible.
Last point: some people might be thinking, by this point, that I’m being unfair to both Republican operatives and to these “real Americans” who’ve showed up at the town halls in fear, anger or both. “But wait,” someone might claim, “it’s insulting that you assume every regular citizen who shows up at a town hall in opposition to health care reform is “a Dupe.” True enough…if that were what I was doing. However, it isn’t: I’m well aware that some of the regular citizens who show up at town halls in opposition to the current health care reform bills may be well-informed, and not Dupes in any sense of the word. I believe absolutely that it’s possible to have reasoned, policy-driven (as opposed to agenda-driven) objections to – even opposition to – the proposed health care reforms. People in this group are represented in Benen’s formulation by the Wonks. But if you re-read Benen’s description, pay attention to where he says that “The Greedy, The Partisans, The Tin-Foil Hats, and The Dupes tend to ignore The Wonks, which is a shame.” You bet it’s a shame. Only, it’s not just a shame. It’s more than that. I would argue that not only do the Greedy, the Tin-Foil Hats and the Partisans ignore the Wonks, they actively push them to the background (except occasionally when a Wonk idea can be exploited in an inflammatory, media-attracting way, which is rare since Wonky ideas are usually detailed, dry, and opaque even when they are worthy). Why? Because the Wonks, either the professional policy guys that Benen mentions or “regular Americans” who are intelligent and interested enough to educate themselves thoroughly before deciding they disagree, employ a strategy for health care reform issues that is anathema to the Greedy, the Partisans and the Tin-Foil Hats: they debate. What you see going on in the media from the Greedy and the Partisans is not good-faith debate. It’s the conscious, mendacious spreading of untruths (or twisted partial-truths) in order to gin up opposition and defeat an opponent for private personal ideological or financial reasons. That’s why Gingrich and McCaughey and a cadre of other professionals do what they do. And, in the public square, at the town halls, what you see the Tin-Foil Hats and, sadly, the Dupes engaging in is not good-faith debate, either. It’s the pre-organized shouting-down of opposing voices, the antithesis of genuine debate. Yes, people have a right to voice their opinions. But when “suggested tactics” are passed around in advance which urge people to disrupt and distract rather than to engage in substantive policy disagreements, that isn’t debate, and it certainly isn’t an expression of good faith. It’s thuggery.
And it’s the opposite of what the Wonks do. Implicit in the Wonks’ approach to their opposition is the stipulation that reasoned discourse, i.e. working within the system, is the way to go about accomplishing one’s goals. Voicing reasoned opposition tacitly admits that yes, Barack Obama is President, yes, the Democrats are in charge and yes, this issue is serious enough that a healthy debate is helpful to crafting the best bill possible. That’s something the Partisans and the Greedy want to avoid like the plague, because they know that if the debate hinges on calmly discussing real issues, they have very little chance of success. Not because there aren’t valid concerns to be raised about portions of Obama’s and the Democrats’ health care reform proposals; there are. But the Greedy and the Partisans know that Obama and the Democrats have such large majorities in government right now due specifically to the fact that people are tending to prefer the Democrats’ approach to things like health care reform and a host of other issues, and they also understand the unavoidable fact that we pay BY FAR more per person in the United States for our health care than any other country on Earth, while getting far less positive outcomes for our money than many of those countries which spend less than we do and have a partially or completely government-funded system with little or no “rationing” of care.
It’s very, VERY difficult to avoid returning to those facts again and again, when rationally discussing health care reform: it is the private health insurance model we currently have today which has brought us to the unsustainable point we’re at right now. If the “free market” for insurance could have fixed our problems, it would have by now. Things are as bad as they are because there are powerful interests that want to keep it that way (the Partisans and – primarily – the Greedy). And those interests know full well that, with such large Democratic majorities in government, and the general public sentiment so much more favorable to Democratic ideas (as well as actual Democrats), the health care reform debate is one they’d almost certainly lose right now. That’s why the Greedy pour literally millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of both Republican Chuck Grassley (lead Republican on the health care issue) and his “Blue Dog” counterpart on the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus. And it’s why the Partisans and the Greedy much prefer to use a supine media to advance a phalanx of fear-inducing falsehoods about health care reform proposals than to push their Wonks to the fore and engage in a good-faith cage-match debate over health care reform ideas. Because the Greedy and the Partisans understand very well that, using their current strategies of obstruction, lies and thuggery, they’ve got a shot at staving off reform yet again, as they did in 1993 with Hillary Clinton’s attempt at it, or in the late ’70s, early ’80s, when Ted Kennedy led a Congressional charge to do it. Or when Harry Truman proposed it in the 1950s. You get the idea.
This isn’t new, and although it’s no less nauseatingly vile, after so many similar scenarios over the years, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. In fact, the only truly surprising thing to me is just how surprised both Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats appear to be that this is the strategy the Partisans and the Greedy (abetted by the Tin-Foil Hats and, most valuably, the media and the Dupes) have chosen to deploy. Democrats and supporters of a sane health care reform policy that is not simply watered-down, impenetrable mumbo-jumbo which amounts in reality to little more than a reshuffling of the stacked-in-favor-of-insurers deck that’s been in play for decades already, had better get their collective acts together, pronto…or they will once again be left sitting on the field, long after the game is over, with befuddled expressions on their faces and thoughts running through their heads like “how could it happen? We had a better plan, polls showed most people wanted reform and agreed with us…and yet…?” One would think that experienced hands who had maybe been present at some of the earlier skirmishes would understand this by now. But every time, it seems the people holding the reins of the Democratic party and the mantle of liberalism and sensible reform are outmaneuvered politically by the lie-spewers and their supporters, both witting and unwitting.
It’s been said before, but it’s (obviously) worth repeating here yet again: politics ain’t beanbag, guys. If you – our elected, overwhelmingly-Democratic leaders – don’t take your noses out of the policy books, stop making concessions to guys like Grassley who openly boast about having delayed reform legislation long enough to ensure that the August-recess tsunami of thuggery would take place, and start kicking some butt and knocking some heads, it will be too late for reform for at least another generation. It may already be too late. You got caught with your pants (and your jaws) down, and the truth is that American just can’t wait another generation to join the rest of the world in enacting a sane, sensible, national health care policy which frees us from the crushing financial downward spiral we’ve been victim to for the past several decades, as health care costs rise at an average rate of 2.5X the rate of inflation. All of you are smart enough, in your wonky little souls, to know that’s unsustainable.
What you seem either to NOT to know, or to have forgotten, is that the modern GOP doesn’t care that such a disparity between growth of health care costs and inflation is unsustainable (at least most of them do not). They care about winning elections and being in control, and they will say anything, advance any idea, no matter how transparently false or morally and intellectually bankrupt, to do that: to WIN. I’m sure they believe that once they’re in power, they can use the magical powers of the free market to do what that same free market has been unable to do for decades. But you ought to remember vividly, even if the Republicans do not (or choose not to) recall what actually happened the last time the GOP and their corporate funders held the reins all to themselves. It wasn’t that long ago. Remember the Bush years? Tom DeLay? The policies which enabled the housing bubble and the resultant and nearly-fatal crash of the credit and stock markets (and subsequently, the entire economy)? All the deregulation? The wars of choice? Torture? Dismantling of the fourth amendment? Sure you do. Now locate your quiet anger over those violations of the Constitution, then locate your testicles (or, for you Democratic ladies, you ovaries, LOL), and get out there in unison and re-kindle the desire for change in the public that they voted for a scant half-year ago. Go on, do it NOW! What are you still waiting for?