Back in the mid-1990s, American seniors were mobilized into action to resist a plan to reform the Medicare system – in fairly modest ways – by scare tactics and misrepresentations. That time, of course, the losers of the exchange were the Republicans, who wanted to look for ways to cut down on fraud and waste, slow the rate of payment increases, and impose some level of cost-benefit analysis into the process of decision-making for Medicare funded procedures (sound familiar?) At one point, a proposal to slow the rate of increased spending was being publicly presented as a plan to slash Medicare spending. Some movies are criticized for being derivative – this kind of argument is a second derivative.
The Republicans called it "Mediscare," and no one did it better than Clinton during the 1996 election. I vividly remember the outrage of a friend of mine, at the time a Republican Party operative in an East Coast state known for its colorful politics. He was incensed at the dishonesty, the bare primacy of politics over policy, the use of appeals to raw emotion to stifle any serious discussion of a critically important policy issue. (Side note: the friend in question later moved from politics to banking, switched to the Democratic Party, and converted to Judaism. Um, I think I feel good about it.) Of course, the Republicans got their turn with Hillarycare, and Harry and Louise. I just saw a really sad story about the actress who played Louise in those commercials; apparently she later couldn’t get work because directors would say "I’m not hiring the woman who killed health care reform."
And now we have the Obamacare "debate." In one sense, this is just another chapter of the bipartisan tradition of demagoguing social policy in the name of party politics. And Americans in large numbers go for it every time. On a side note, what is it about us? I’m not actually sure Americans are capable of meaningful rational collective except in the face of imminent and total disaster. I think it’s part of the anarchic strand of Romantic madness in the American character that comes down to us from Tom Paine and Daniel Shays. Perfectly sober Bohemian Socialists, well-disciplined Italian Anarchists, long-suffering Slovak peasant farmers, decent, hard-working Irish nationalist – they all came to America, abandoned their Left revolutionary roots, and turned into populist whack jobs. And then they became Nativists, which is even more miraculous. I remember a news story about a controversy over a mosque in Hamtramck, Michigan. One local resident, in particular, complained that the call to prayer being broadcast from the minaret was un-American – "if they’re going to live in America, why can’t they be more American," she asked? I saw a video of the interview. While the video shows, that the newspaper interview does not, is that she made this statement standing in front of a church whose lettering was in Ukrainian. But I digress.
So there is nothing new about Mediscare-style arguments, rambunctious and easily manipulated populists, or Astroturf-style mobilizations. But there is something about this debate that feels different, something more intense. I kept trying to put my finger on it, to find a phrase to capture the elusive qualitative difference between these scare tactics and those of political operatives past. And then Samantha Bee capture the zeitgeist of the moment in a single pithy phrase: "universal single-payer shamanistic death panels."
Not just an obvious name for a thrash metal band, "universal single-payer shamanistic death panels" captures the quality that differentiates this "debate" from even previous "debates" on the topic. In those earlier debates, participants misrepresented plans, exaggerated dangers … in short, they described an inaccurate version of the policy debate taking place. It was as if they were describing a debate taking place somewhere else – in Canada, say, or Mexico – rather than the debate taking place in the United States at that time. By contrast, the people showing up to disrupt town hall meetings this summer have left the planet entirely.
Seriously, on what planet do we imagine an elected leader whose idea of successful politics is to knock off potential voters? Is this supposed to be something that political consultants tell their clients will play in Peoria? You can’t have it both ways: the Dems cannot simultaneously be ruthlessly political, amoral, poll-driven political animals and ruthless ideologues committed to a revolutionary vision of global immolation. At least, I don’t think you can. F. Scott Fitzgerald told us that an intellectual is someone who can maintain two opposing ideas at the same time and still function – maybe conservatives are just more intellectual than liberals? Actually, what’s even more interesting to me is the apparent (although unstated) assumption that all the other industrialized countries that have single-payer health plans are currently engaged in sending their grandparents and babies off to be euthanized. I’m not even sure what to make of this one, except to go back to my earlier observations about what happens to perfectly sane European revolutionary radicals when they come to America and turn into wild-eyed, violent conservatives. I mean, do people really think that Canadian street are littered with the corpses of untreated grandparents? And that Canadian voters favor those outcomes? As the writers of South Park would put it, really??
Oh, before I forget, the obligatory reference: everyone I disagree with is a Nazi. Whew, I’m glad I remembered. Now, universal single payer shamanistic death panels – forward!