The right’s grave new threat: Why its political institutions now must fail

Led by Obamacare, a flurry of recent developments in conservative politics underscore why the movement can't adapt

Topics: Obamacare, Affordable Care Act, Risk Corr, CBO, Congressional Budget Office, Mike Huckabee, Coca-Cola, Super Bowl, Eric Cantor, Medicaid, Editor's Picks,

The right's grave new threat: Why its political institutions now must failEric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz (Credit: AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Monday, apropos of what I’m not sure, conservative technologist Patrick Ruffini tweeted a thoughtful and detailed critique of existing conservative institutions, arguing that the movement needs newer, better ones if the American right is to be more than a safe haven for refugees from the broader culture.

On Tuesday, nearly every conservative institution of influence — the Republican Party and its enablers and antagonists in the movement — united to perpetuate a major fiction about the Affordable Care Act.

These sound like unrelated issues, but in fact the latter exemplifies why Ruffini’s dream of a mature conservatism with broad public appeal isn’t going to materialize any time soon. The existing conservative movement’s worst practices aren’t a consequence of the ossification of old institutions. They flow naturally from the composition of the movement itself. And that movement won’t tolerate the kind of institutional vision Ruffini contemplates.

A conservatism of national consensus would have to depart from the existing movement in many ways, but the most immediate substantive and lexical shift would have to be the abandonment of Obamacare dead enderism. Not that the new conservatism would need to embrace the Affordable Care Act. But it would have to recognize the on-the-ground reality that repeal is an impossible goal with marginal support, and direct its energies toward modifying the law in modest, but conservative-friendly ways.

But the existing movement draws its energy from cultural reactionaries who demand fealty to unpopular policies and also happen to be party activists. Which helps explain the professional right’s reaction to an updated Congressional Budget Office analysis of the law’s impact on the economy.

Cantor was just one of the dozens of Republicans to make a statement along these lines. Every word of this one is false.

The CBO report in question contained mostly good, but some bad news for Obamacare. It concludes that the outage last year will reduce near-term enrollment in private plans and Medicaid by 2 million people and that the means-tested nature of the benefits will induce some people to work fewer hours in order to preserve their level of subsidization. Some of these people will be grateful for the inducement, which is good. Others will succumb to it reluctantly, which is bad. Ironically a universal benefit like single-payer would eliminate this inducement altogether.

But hundreds of thousands of people will also reduce their hours or exit the work force voluntarily because the law weakens what healthcare economists call “job lock” — a phenomenon that indentures millions of people to jobs they don’t want because unsatisfying employment is the only way they can obtain health insurance. Add up all the hours of work that people will stop doing and CBO estimates that the workforce will shrink by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time workers over the next 10 years because of the ACA.

That will reduce economic growth. It will also improve the lives of myriad older workers, sicker workers and workers with children, and create upward pressure on wages for people who remain in the workforce, or are enticed back in, to compete for their jobs. Whether you think that’s a good tradeoff on balance is a question of values. But most conservatives didn’t engage that debate. Instead, they lied to their supporters and gullible reporters about what the CBO actually said, and then got called out repeatedly by neutral arbiters. People won’t be losing or getting pushed out of their jobs. They’ll be leaving voluntarily. Those who remain will be earning more. And to the extent that Obamacare will “kill jobs,” (it won’t) a new GOP alternative to Obamacare will do the same — as will any plan that makes it easier for working-age people to obtain insurance outside of the workplace.

Anti-ACA reactionaries don’t want to hear that though. So that’s not what they were told.

Instead they were told that Republican leaders are leaning toward demanding the repeal of Obamacare’s “insurance company bailout” as a ransom for increasing the debt limit. This refers to the law’s “risk corridors,” which protect insurers from greater-than-expected losses in the ACA’s early years, but simultaneously allow the public to share in greater-than-expected insurer profits over the same span. Conservatives have assumed that the provision will cost the government money, and that any net payout, no matter how small, would amount to a “bailout.” Here’s a lengthier look at the origins of this smear.

Well, the same CBO report that didn’t find Obamacare will cost millions of people their jobs did conclude that the risk corridors will probably net $8 billion for the government. If anything the finding argues for making the risk corridors permanent, to prevent insurers from skimming billions of dollars away from the public in the out years. But conservatives will still call risk corridors a bailout, and continue angling for repeal, because repealing the risk corridors would threaten to disrupt the insurance market and sabotaging Obamacare is something the right expects them to do.

Elsewhere in Obamacare, Arkansas Republicans are threatening to rescind the state’s Medicaid expansion for over 80,000 new beneficiaries. And in non-Obamacare news Mike Huckabee has vaulted to the top of the heap in the GOP shadow primary for the presidency because he thinks controlling the female libido is a remedy for the problem of birth control demand; conservatives freaked out over Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl ad, which featured immigrants singing “America the Beautiful” in other languages; and those conservatives appear to be winning an internal fight over whether House Republicans should pass immigration reform legislation.

These stories reflect the cultural attitudes of millions of activist conservatives. And you can’t rebuild a movement around the politics of consensus if it’s composed of people who rebel against the consensus reflexively.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...