Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Medicare: YAY! Government: BOO!
You might have heard by now about those aged but angry protesters at health care town halls warming their elected officials to "keep your government hands off my Medicare!" And, like me, you might have gotten a laff out of the illogic of the demand. But evidently this is a cognitive disconnect not of a few septuagenarian Fox News viewers, but rather a majority of Republicans across the country!
A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) illustrates the profound levels of ignorance that currently interfere with the debate over health care.

One question asked: "Do you think the government should stay out of Medicare?" Keep in mind that this is a logical impossibility, as Medicare is a government program, which was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, to provide guaranteed health care to the elderly.

As it turns out, 39% of voters think government should stay out of Medicare, compared to 46% who disagree.

Among Republicans, 62% say the government should stay out of Medicare, compared to only 24% of Democrats and 31% of independents who agree.

(As an aside, I'd love to know what percentage of elected Republican officials would have answered yes... when ignorance of basic facts is a political strength rather than a liability, there's a strong incentive to be ignorant.)

I'm not sure what if anything this means for the prospects of health care reform. And I suppose that one possible, though very unlikely, interpretation of the finding is that those answering "Yes" might simply want to see Medicare abolished, as some of the most extreme right-wingers probably do. Or that the program should be perpetually frozen in time--no new benefits, nothing taken away, no adjustment in reimbursements, etc.

But I think it's probably just representative of our deep ambivalence toward "government," and the success that the modern conservative moment has had in painting any positive activity of the public sector as separate and distinct from the malignant entity that Rush Limbaugh and his ilk are always yowling about. A deep concern with and ongoing public debate over government's role is, in my opinion, justified and probably helpful; the reptile-brain hostility now on display is not.

Americans' views toward government have changed over time, but I'm starting to wonder if the default suspicion-bordering-on-rage we've seen for the last thirty years is maybe more historically representative than the faith and trust Americans seemed to have between the New Deal and Watergate. Of course, public views of government began to improve when government, under FDR and Democratic congresses, became more proactive in defense of the public good; attitudes began to sour again through the gross inhumanity and myriad public lies of the Vietnam War, the perceived waste of the Great Society, and the unrestrained and almost serene criminality of Watergate. I've long believed that progressives have to restore government's good name before they can begin to seriously dream of implementing a broad agenda. But there's a chicken-and-egg dynamic here: the way to prove that government can be a force for good in the lives of Americans is to take actions that improve those lives. On the question of health care, for the Democrats, that means simply taking a deep breath, passing something, and then working like hell to make sure it functions as it should.

Then, in thirty years, maybe the sixty-somethings of that time will attend Virtual Town Halls demanding that bureaucrats keep their sweaty hands off our Obamacare.


The Navigator said...

"the way to prove that government can be a force for good in the lives of Americans is to take actions that improve those lives."

That's precisely what a lot of conservatives think - and fear: If the Dems institute health insurance that benefits everyone, then everyone will tend to rely on, and favor, robust government. Some of them, I think, extrapolate to the further point that the Dems, as the party of government, would then naturally become the permanent majority party. I agree with the former point but the latter is mistaken: we'd be more like Europe, with both parties being pulled to the left. The conservative party might go on to win more elections, but they'd evolve into a much more pro-government party, like the British Tories, whose leader has been staunchly defending the NHS in recent days, or the German CDU, who by U.S. standards have merely tinkered with labor protections.

Which means, if I'm right, that a purple district rep's vote for health care is an act of courage both in the short run, for an big new gov't initiative with acute opposition and diffuse benefits/political support, and in the long run, where Americans will quickly come to take the new system for granted. Credit doesn't last, any more than Dems kept the White House after Medicare and Medicaid.

The Navigator said...

Having said that, I suppose I should note that, obviously, I think they should do this anyway. Seriously - conservative Dems need to run up their red state cred some other way. Call for gun rights, make some meaningless pronouncements about gay marriage, denounce kiddie porn, denounce the bailout of Goldman Sachs, whatever. But goddamn, if you're a Democrat and you don't use your power to expand health care coverage, what the fuck are you doing? What's the point? Why are you even in Congress?

I think sociologists and political scientists will tell you that in any organization/party/corporation/etc. there's a strong tendency for actors to value their own position within the entity above the success of the entity as a whole. And, in this case, the Democratic party organization wouldn't even benefit in the long run (although as many have noted, it would in the short run, as low-information voters absorb the impression that Obama & Co. have done something successful and impressive).

But seriously - serving in Congress is typically less money than members could earn elsewhere, it's a huge drag to be constantly calling donors to beg for money - it can't be worth it to do all that just for the abstract power or influence, at least in the House. You gotta take the chance to help establish something that will help people.

David said...

Was watching Betsy McCaughey on the Daily Show last night, really wanted to break things. (And this was after the very soothing Phillies win.)

When you have the other side's "experts" doggedly clinging to the most out-there, factually unsustainable interpretation that a lunatic could come up with, how is serious debate even possible?