The Dumbpire Strikes Back!

It’s hard to know whether Sarah Palin really believed what she said a few weeks ago about President Obama’s health reform plan. But if the specter of "death panels" of government bureaucrats dispensing cold, cruel justice to "unproductive" citizens actually keeps the former Alaska governor up nights, we are in trouble.

Actually, we are in trouble whether Palin and the Republicans believe their own lies or not. They’ve obviously finally run out of even the pretense of credible arguments to justify their opposition to health care reform. Yet, remarkably, it hardly matters.

In a few short weeks, President Obama’s once lofty campaign promise of universal health care has undergone a downgrading sure to darken even the sunniest of progressive dispositions. The vision of health care reform instead has become barely more than a fractious, uninspiring Congressional debate over federal health insurance guidelines. Worse, as the President’s proposed "public option" gets the vegomatic treatment from Congress, with Obama hinting this lynchpin of his reform is also negotiable, the promise of a meaningful health care overhaul now runs the risk of being swept into history’s proverbial dustbin. A shining historical moment this is not.

In fact, Obama’s original vision of reform was inspiring only in its rhetorical sweep. For the President’s strategic assault on health reform was never about unseating the royalist power of the industry’s private insurers and investors. This reform has always been more of a polite knock on the door of power.

A Republican Base in Search of Itself


That’s why it’s so remarkable to witness the sociopathic fury with which the Republican right, acting on behalf of the industry’s’ profiteers, has responded to the prospect of even limited consumer reform. As the town hall mobs fume over "death panels," grunts with assault weapons show up at Obama appearances spouting demonstrative nonsense about "the price of liberty." Meanwhile, covering the flank an anonymous army of surly Internet trolls prowl the online newspaper world, posting learned references to freedom’s demise under the regime of "Obama the Marxist" (or is it "Obama the Nazi"?). Who would have thought so many brave Americans were ready to rise up for their right to be denied coverage based on pre-existing conditions?

But none of this should come as a surprise. Tutored in years of Bush-era politics and the brash, rude culture of right-wing talk media, a sector of the public is apparently more ready than ever to embrace any old nonsense that rings the bell of their various sour fantasies about who’s to blame for the country’s problems.

This is irritable bowel syndrome as mass politics, a great cramping of the conservative body politic against the change they do not believe in. The far right multiplies in this digestive mire, as elected Republicans, insurance lobbyists, and "free-market" ideologues exploit the brooding anger of a sizeable minority of ordinary Americans whose bruised political sensibilities are cultivated in the long decline of middle-class living standards and wages.

This is why it actually makes sense for Palin to persist with the death panel propaganda; despite clear evidence the legislation in question concerned only unremarkable hospice and other end-of-life counseling issues. The ridicule of liberals matters less to Palin and company than the approval of a grassroots Republican base in search of itself in the post-Bush era. With health care reform the right has found that reinvigorating political hook. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich quickly gave credence to the death panel fears, demonstrating his comfort zone with credibility does not preclude a swim now and then in the thickest sewers of nonsense. Republican Senate leader Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who only recently had earned Obama’s praise for his positive bipartisan spirit on behalf of health reform, also began bleating like one of the right-wing pod people. "You shouldn’t have counseling at the end of life," droned the senator. "We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma."

Incredibly, the Senate Finance committee responded to this idiocy by dropping the counseling provision from the bill, citing its potential for confusion and controversy. With logic reminiscent of Soviet journalists of the Stalin-era, conservative commentators such as U.S. News & World Report’s Peter Roff in his Aug. 13 column interpreted the Senate move as confirmation that Palin was right all along about the legislation’s sinister motives.

It gets worse. The frontal assault on health care reform finds another ally in the libertarian fringe, a bunch of people whose tendency to idolize the supposed golden age of 19th century "free-market" capitalism is as skewed as their fetishistic aversion to the modern-day "evils of government."

The latter find their viewpoint articulated for the mass media by such intellectual figures as entertainer Penn Jillette and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. The former told Fox News host Glen Beck on July 16 that for "moral" and "philosophical" reasons he opposes Medicare or Medicaid, preferring instead that health care choices be strictly an individual responsibility. In this libertarian vision of "freedom," it’s just you and me and the insurance conglomerates all realizing our full potential in tandem. Unfortunately, Jillette concedes, the public is "pretty happy" with Medicare and Medicaid.

But Jillette is almost levelheaded compared to Mackey, whose Aug. 12 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal denies the very idea of a right to health care (or, for that matter, food or shelter.) One of Mackey’s great ideas for health care reform is to make it easier for taxpayers to donate to charities to help the uninsured get medical care. Apparently, it’s easy to be a social Darwinist (or, should we say, a social barbarian?) if you’re rich.

If the charitable blessings of this squire of "healthful living" aren’t enough to turn you into an advocate for a total command economy, consider the musings of Fox News pundit Jonathan Hoenig. A few months ago Hoenig, a managing partner in a firm called CapitalistPig Asset Management (what else do we need to know?), told Fox’s Neal Cavuto that bombing Iran would be good for the stock market. So far Hoenig hasn’t advocated bombing the Department of Health and Human Services, but his notion of health care reform is not much better.

"The problems with American health care stem not from it being for-profit and capitalist," Hoenig writes in Smart Money (July 30, 2009), "but from it not being capitalist enough." Like Mackey, Hoenig thinks insurance companies should be "freed" from the stifling prison of regulatory scrutiny.

If this isn’t enough, consider the views of veteran action star Chuck Norris, whose intellectual karate chops add a final comic touch to the storm of stupidity brewing on the right. "Obamacare is about the government’s coming into homes and usurping parental rights over child care and development," Norris asserts in a Town Hall op-ed (Aug. 11, 2009). The actor refers to a provision in a House bill that would provide families with children and those expecting access to home visits from medical professionals.

Democracy Under Attack


It’s easy to mock the ridiculous scare tactics and slurs of right-wing America. But the crass demagoguery represents more than just ignorance and irrationality. The right wing in the United States is morphing into an increasingly vulgar and threatening political stock. They represent a social milieu capable in time of remaking itself into a more organizationally cohesive shock-force, one ready to put boots to the ground in new, even wider offensives against the evils of "liberal America." For now they demonstrate that it is not just health care reform under attack; it is potentially democracy itself, or at least any intelligent version of democracy.

Meanwhile, our amiable President, to the growing frustration of much of his grassroots base, continues to talk of "consensus" and "bipartisanship" in crafting a final legislative package. As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and others have asked, why continue to negotiate with Republicans who just don’t want any health care reform period?

But that raises a related question for the Democrats. Why negotiate with a health care industry that makes clear its deep-seated antipathy to even the slightest challenge to its massive profits? Unfortunately, this is the path Obama has embraced from the outset, accepting the power of the insurance industry, Big Pharma, and industry profiteers as here to stay, while rejecting out of hand the most rational, just solution to the current health care crisis—a single-payer national health care system.

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