In “America’s Bitter Pill,” Steven Brill’s masterful work on the passage and implementation of Obamacare, there is an interesting anecdote about an elderly couple from Kentucky, the Browns, who had gone through the ringer of America’s broken healthcare system before the Affordable Care Act was introduced. Unable to get insurance because of a pre-existing condition, they could not afford medication for their many afflictions, from heart disease to diabetes to pain sprouting from a crushed vertebrae. When Obamacare finally came around in Kentucky, with its state healthcare exchange (Kentucky was one of the few red states that complied), the Browns couldn’t believe their luck:
“The Browns had heard about Kynect from television ads [Carrie] Banahan (the Executive Director of the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange) had purchased. “We thought it was too good to be true,” Viola Brown told me. “It seemed like the answer to our prayers.”... Shelbyville is in Shelby County, which had voted 67-33 percent for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. The Browns are white as is 90 percent of Shelby County. Of the four people among those who were enrolling that afternoon who said they had voted and were willing to share their choice with me, all four had voted for Romney. Yet [Kentucky Governor Steve] Beshear’s message -- or perhaps simply the lure of “answered prayers” that Viola Brown had expressed -- seemed to have gotten through. What they were doing at those card tables with the kynectors was not about Barack Obama. In fact, none mentioned Obamacare, except for the one enrollee who said that Kynect was “a lot better than Obamacare.”
This short anecdote says a lot about American politics. It is an example of how political ignorance can be harmful, and how working class people, particularly the white working class, seemingly vote against their interests without even realizing it. The right wing propaganda machine -- largely funded by the beloved Koch brothers (recall that creepy commercial with the Uncle Sam Gynecologist) and other special interests -- created a panic that the government was “taking over” the healthcare system (if only) and that “death panels” (a Sarah Palin myth that remains in the minds of many to this day), made up of Orwellian bureaucrats deciding who is worthy of healthcare, would be introduced. (Because the private industry was so good at deciding who deserved coverage, after all.)
Had “Kynect” simply been called “Kentucky Obamacare,” some people who finally received the healthcare that they needed would have probably remained uninsured because of fear. (While campaigning for reelection, Sen. Mitch McConnell realized this ignorance, and said that he wanted to keep Kynect, which had become popular, but repeal Obamacare, even though Kynect was in reality Obamacare.) Now, after the election of ultra-conservative Matt Bevin as Kentucky governor earlier this month, people like the Browns may be facing more pain in the future, as he may shutdown Kynect.
In the United States, ignorance is not bliss. Indeed, it can be deadly and self-destructive. Since the Republican Party chose to become the corporately owned white man’s party about 50 years ago, its success has been based largely on creating animosities between races and defending socially conservative beliefs and intolerance. Sen. Bernie Sanders summed it up nicely last month to a crowd at George Mason University:
“For many years in this country you have had politicians, and I'm old enough to know this, who played black off against white. So they told white workers who are earning pennies an hour, you think you're in trouble but you're better off than the blacks who can't drink at a water fountain or go to your school. And they told straight people, well you think you've got problems, but you're off than those gay people right? And they held men against women. They played one group off against another. Rich got richer and everybody else is fighting with each other.”
Divide and conquer.
The right’s attack on social welfare programs exposes this strategy of playing white against black. It was the “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” who were living lavishly off of the hard work of white people. (Even though, in reality, the majority of people who receive welfare assistance have jobs that simply do not pay living wages. Indeed, corporate welfare may be a more appropriate term, because corporations thus save money when they offer low wages.) As the animosities heightened, the top 1 percent saw their wealth skyrocket, while everyone else saw their wages stagnate and their unions crumble.
Of course, the Democratic Party deserves some blame as well. While it became increasingly socially progressive, it turned economically reactionary. The Clinton administration deregulated Wall Street, enacted draconian criminal justice reform, signed into law welfare reform that created a system “rife with racial biases,” and signed a corporatist trade deal, NAFTA. In many ways, the Democratic party became as equally consumed with identity politics as the GOP, while completely throwing away its Social Democratic roots that helped create a middle class in America. So what did white working class people do in response? They voted Republican.
But as the Bernie Sanders campaign continues to shift the debate, and push the Democratic Party back to its Social Democratic roots, there may be a chance of recapturing many of the working class voters who drifted to the Republican party over the past few decades. Ultimately, it comes down to capturing minds, which is tough when there is a well-oiled noise machine on the right, operated by people like Frank Lunz, the Orwellian master of doublespeak who coined or popularized terms like “death tax,” “energy exploration,” “government takeover,” and “job creators.”
The American right mastered the art of propaganda a long time ago. It managed to create a backlash and ultimately dismantle much of the welfare state through racist dog-whistle politics. It captured the minds of working class whites through a phony paragon of “family values.” It made it so the wealthiest of the wealthiest were the good guys; the job-creators who deserved endless praise and tax breaks, not criticism for how they treated or paid their workers. Meanwhile, one of the most ingenious myths that the right managed to implant in countless minds is that the corporate media is left wing or liberal, which altered the entire conversation. Now the mainstream media, which has long defended American imperialism and promoted capitalist interests, was left wing.
A paradigm shift would require a mass movement, or as Sanders likes to call it, a “political revolution.” Many Americans are waking up to the fact that the Republican party is a wholly owned by corporate America (as the revolt within the party reveals). The problem is that the Democratic party is also very much owned by special interests, as Sanders made clear during this past weekend's debate when criticizing frontrunner Hillary Clinton for her longtime ties to Wall Street (which she, incredibly, tried to explain away by bringing up 9/11’s attack on lower Manhattan).
If the Democratic party continues to shift back to its Social Democratic tradition, and make progressive economic policies a priority once again, could it not win back some of the Reagan Democrats that it lost 30 years ago? Around the election of Reagan, economic inequality was at its lowest in American history. Since then, it has returned to pre-depression levels. This is not a coincidence, and people are starting to realize it.
Maybe it comes down to how much pain working class people can take before realizing that the GOP does not have their back. In 1980, the Professional Air Controls Organization (public union) endorsed Ronald Reagan for president, and one year later, he destroyed them. Working class people continue to vote Republican, and Republicans continue to promote policies that hurt them. The best thing Republican politicians can hope for is ignorant voters who care more about abortion than their right to healthcare or fair wages. Voters who think Kynect is not Obamacare, for example. But the 2016 primaries have shown that times are changing, and that neither the GOP or the Democratic party can continue to promote neoliberal policies and expect to win elections.