Ignorant Tea Party outrage: Sarah Palin's latest Obamacare lie

Sarah Palin, Ben Carson and others who compare Obamacare to slavery don't know much about either

By Nancy Isenberg - Andrew Burstein
October 14, 2013 4:30PM (UTC)
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Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The Republicans who attack the Affordable Care Act are so twisted in their vulgar logic that they trip themselves up whenever they seek justification from history.  At that warped assembly misnamed the “Values Voter Summit” last week, Dr. Ben Carson, an African-American neurosurgeon and Fox News contributor, literally called Obamacare “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”  Recognizing how odd these words must have sounded coming from a person of color, he doubled down:  “And it is slavery, it is, in a way, slavery, because it is making all of us subservient.”

When outspoken conservatives look for historical analogies in support of their “Obamascare” tactics, they always seem to herald their imagined outrage over American slavery.  Former Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives William O’Brien has compared healthcare reform to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Is granting Americans the right to buy health insurance as destructive to “personal and individual liberty” as federal agents being forced to recapture slaves and return them to their southern masters?  When asked to defend his remarks, O’Brien later added that both laws allowed the federal government to “go into states and order individuals and state governments to enforce federal laws in the states.”  (He foolishly thinks that states can pick and choose which federal laws they will enforce.)


Both Dr. Carson and Speaker O’Brien reflect the conservative impulse to exploit people’s fears by making anathema what is actually humane progress.  They routinely deny actual historical experience and abandon coherent logic.  In his speech yesterday, Carson casually segued from slavery to Leninism–yes, it was Lenin, he stressed, who pronounced that socialized medicine was the “keystone” to full-blown socialism.

Whatever smacks of “government takeover” is fair game for these guys, knowing that fear is currency and media distortions their sure-fire means of controlling minds that are the most susceptible.  Which is why they accuse the president of doing what they, in fact, are doing.  Carson railed:  “It was never about healthcare; it was about control.”  Really?  That was President Obama’s motive in 2008 and 2009?

Is it historical amnesia or something more sinister when conservatives liken healthcare to tyranny and slavery and servitude?  Here’s the clownish Sarah Palin on Fox News: “What Barack Obama seems to want is to go back before those days when we were in different classes based on different incomes, based on color of skin.”


Yes, Sarah, it’s President Obama who wants to return us to the pre-Civil War era, when slavery, racial discrimination, and individual rights were based on the legal definition of whiteness.  By her reasoning, the Affordable Care Act returns him to a subordinate status, one of the class of non-citizens who were denied equal rights–let alone high office.  The analogy is utterly racist.  Ms. Palin and all the sheep-like, tea-besotted haters who take in this garbage are unable to escape their netherworld.  The fact is that no one has to return the United States to an era “when we were different classes,” as she puts it, because we have a thriving and unequal class system right now.  It is based on the concentration of wealth within giant corporations; it is reflected in the riches that allow CEOs and paid lobbyists to make government policy.  Our unequal class system enables the ruling elite class–the only people who could directly identify with Mitt Romney–to pay a lower tax rate than schoolteachers and nurses.

The Affordable Care Act is indeed about class difference, but not in the way the Republican talking heads pretend.  Obamacare aims to help those regular, hardworking people whom Republicans dismiss as deadbeats.  New Hampshire’s motto “Live free or die” can be construed as the Republicans’ “survival of the fittest” ideology: those who hate Affordable Care evidently intend for financially strapped Americans, debtors, the sick with hospital bills, the poor without insurance, to sink or swim.  By professing that America’s healthcare system is being ruined by Romneycare, Obamacare, or whatever you want to call it, these critics are saying that people who have insurance should not give a hoot about those without it.

Still, the slavery comparison remains the most perverse example of the conservative rewrite of our past amid the Obamacare debate.  The Nation reported that Louisiana Representative John Fleming was on a radio call-in show earlier this month when a listener asked him whether the Republican crusade to stop Obamacare resembled earlier Republicans’ struggle against slavery and segregation.  “Precisely correct,” replied Fleming.  Even the historically informed conservative columnist George Will analogized Obamacare to the Fugitive Slave Act, as if the two were comparable on moral grounds.


Ted Cruz goes a step further.  He claims that only the South can save American freedom and defeat Obamacare.  And why does the Texas Senator resent the handful of Republicans from outside the South who have clamored for an end to the government shutdown?  Because for southern politicians, still steeped in a nostalgia for the unequal, impoverished Confederacy, the government shutdown is a stand-in for secession.  We all know where the greatest poverty is to be found.  It’s in the Southern states–where federal programs stand to do the most good.  So, killing Obamacare does nothing to revive the cause of the Republican Party of Lincoln in its formative struggle against slavery.  Rather, protesting Obama is a clarion call for the revival of the southern-based Democratic Party of yore, whose avowed enemy were those they called the “Black Republicans.”  To put it another way, today’s southern-led Republicans are re-instituting the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy: even though they lost the 2012 election to Obama (which was a proxy civil war), they persist in claiming that their battle continues to be fought through social policy.

So, if you want a proper analogy to the Civil War era that explains why Republicans hate Obamacare, it is to be found in the controversy over the post-bellum Freedmen’s Bureau.  This was the program that helped displaced slaves and poor whites, the two groups whom former Confederates feared would cut into their entrenched power if given the opportunity to exercise “personal liberty.”  Empowering former slaves served to weaken the racial division that the powerful planters cultivated by upholding the morality of the slavery system.  Empowering landless whites threatened to shift the balance of political power to the northern-inspired federal government.  This is what the Republicans who follow the Texan Cruz worry about: if struggling middle-class and working-class whites (especially in the South) see the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, then the Republican Party’s southern strategy will collapse.  Here’s the thing: Only by keeping white Republicans angry at the federal government can they keep their fragile coalition together.


Misuse of the slavery metaphor is nothing new.  The original Tea Party protesters, in Boston in 1773, disguised themselves as Native Americans when they boarded East India Tea Company ships and dumped its cargo.  They were not identifying with real Indians, any more than today’s Republicans have a legitimate connection to the abolitionists of the 1850s.  The Boston patriots compared themselves to slaves, too.  In fact, their highly effective rhetoric exceeded today’s Tea Partiers:  “My sons scorn to be slaves!” pronounced a Son of Liberty.  Or even better:  “Shall we tamely suffer the pestilential breath of tyrants to approach the garden of our fathers and blast the fruit of their labours?”  Southerners claiming to fear that British tax policy would lead to their “enslavement” were taunted by the English wit Samuel Johnson, who charged in 1775 that the “loudest yelps for liberty” were issuing from the actual “drivers of negroes.”

In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson blamed King George for forcing Americans to trade in slaves.  All the while, Jefferson’s landowning Virginia peers lived like aristocrats in the midst of a voiceless mass of landless white tenant farmers.  So that has always been the game: you turn slavery on its head, teaching the less privileged whites who are truly oppressed to spout your language of blame.  A nasty, cruel, tax-mad distant authority is exploiting you.  Today, it’s the “pestilential breath” of the Kenyan King, imposing his tyranny upon ordinary Americans–if you’re following the conservatives’ script.

If freedom-worshipping Republicans really want to rescue the aggrieved who are being “enslaved” by Obamacare, they should organize a new underground railroad and, like their 19th-century forebears, smuggle those good folks into Canada.  Oh wait, don’t they have universal government healthcare up there?

Nancy Isenberg

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Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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Affordable Care Act American History Editor's Picks Obamacare Race Sarah Palin Slavery Ted Cruz