And the conservative freakout begins

Now we're living under the Bolshevik heel, and the only escape is by, um, voting in our democratic elections?


Gabriel Winant
March 22, 2010 5:23PM (UTC)

"Darkness descends," wrote Patrick Ruffini last night on Twitter. Ruffini, a Republican operative and blogger, isn't a birther or a Glenn Beck-style conspiracy theorist. He's just a regular conservative. Likewise, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has been hailed as the bright young face of a Republican Party seriously interested in the details of public policy, spoke on the House floor about how the idea of America is "pro-human," and how healthcare reform violates that principle.

As part of the general claim that what is really an incrementalist bill has somehow radically violated the national spirit, right-wing pundits are now also claiming that Democrats got everything they wanted. At the Weekly Standard, Matt Continetti echoes Ryan, writing that the bill will "complete the decades-long project of American liberals to create an American welfare state along the lines you find in postwar Western Europe." He then warns of the coming wave of liberal social welfare legislation, consisting almost entirely of stuff that won't be passing this Congress or the next one. "Next comes immigration, cap-and-trade, a universal entitlement to higher education, and card-check legislation empowering unions." (Hilariously, three sentences after this preposterous, if appealing, prophecy of doom, Continetti adds, "Do not believe anyone who tells you they understand the path American politics will take after this vote.")

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Continetti also points out, "Obamacare is a testable proposition. The proponents of this legislation have made distinct claims regarding its costs and consequences that should not be forgotten." Similarly, over at the Corner, the blog of the National Review Online, Kathryn Jean Lopez chimes in, "Congratulations, Democrats. Beginning now, you own the health-care system in America. Every hiccup. Every complaint. Every long line. All yours."

It’s as if Lopez didn’t notice that the bill took almost a year to pass because of the constant bait-and-switch run by conservatives who pretended to be interested in a compromise. No Republicans voted for it in the end, but because of that process, the law has the indelible imprint on it of the obstinate Republican minority. They helped make it, even if they didn’t vote for it. The bill doesn't even have a weak public option or healthcare cooperatives. It's got no employer mandate. It didn't spring fully formed from the head of Nancy Pelosi; in fact, it was the product of sustained thrashing about between the parties. But Lopez is like a new parent who walks out on a partner and young child and, on the way out the door, turns around to say, "Now it’s your fault if the kid is screwed up."

But probably the funniest thing about all the prophecies of doom coming from conservatives is how they center on two completely irreconcilable claims: First, the bill is a totalitarian assault on freedom and the American way of life; second, the electorate will not allow this to stand, and in November the Democrats should expect a drubbing, with repeal of the reform to follow. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., gave a nice example of this when he warned that the "totalitarian" bill "continues the Soviets' failed Soviet socialist experiment." So, presumably, Nunes won’t be running for reelection in November because the new one-party Soviet state would throw him in the gulag for trying, right?

"Totalitarian" is a pretty heavy-duty word to be throwing around. It puts the U.S. in the company of, say, North Korea. Obviously, it's completely incompatible with the idea of an angry American population rising up to throw the bums out. That would indicate that this is, in fact, a regular and moderate part of the usual democratic process -- in case, really, you couldn’t tell by all the speeches and voting going on in the duly elected legislative body.

Besides, haven’t any of these people noticed that these exact same claims get thrown around every time Democrats extend the social safety net or pass a major progressive bill? Salon editor Joan Walsh notes the completely disproved predictions of doom that Newt Gingrich and the GOP emitted when President Clinton’s 1993 budget passed, like healthcare reform, without any bipartisan support.

It's true that, as Republicans love to point out, Social Security and Medicare both passed with Republican support. But that's not really as notable as it sounds. Just like the Democratic Party was once populated by Southern reactionaries alongside Northern progressives, the GOP used to have plenty of liberals. The first major piece of union-friendly labor law ever passed, for example, was the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932. That would be Sen. George Norris, R-Neb., and Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia, R-N.Y.

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Besides, the bipartisanship didn’t keep Republicans from getting all overheated and whacked-out over those bills either. There's the famous Ronald Reagan speech, of course, warning of how the passage of Medicare would mean that one day, fathers would tell sons of the golden days when "men were free." Or if you want some really great old-school stuff, go back to the 1930s and check out how Social Security opponents used to talk about the idea: "The lash of the dictator will be felt and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test," said Rep. Daniel Reed, R-N.Y. "Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people," agreed his fellow New York Republican, Rep. John Taber.

So the next time you hear a conservative say that healthcare reform is marching us down the road to serfdom, ask, "So, what’re you doing to prepare? Surely, with the Obama dictatorship readying the prison camps and secret police, you’ve got an escape plan, or at least an arsenal stockpiled to go down fighting?" What’s that? Oh. You’re just going to your job and acting normal.

To paraphrase Matt Continetti and Kathryn Jean Lopez, prophecies of doom are a testable proposition. Beginning now, when liberals inevitably fail to get some major item passed, it’s another piece of evidence for how indescribably overblown the right wing’s reaction to this bill has been.


Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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