As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Freedom Riders

Turns out that the teabaggers at one town hall meeting in Texas weren't from the area:

Last night, Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) hosted a rowdy town hall meeting to discuss health care reform. Fox’s local Houston affiliate reporter, Duarte Geraldino, reported that he talked to the participants and found that “some attendees admit they don’t live in the district.” How did they get there? Geraldino noted “an internet campaign” by far right activists urging their allies to attend and heckle Democratic Representatives. Geraldino then aired a clip showing one participant acting disrespectfully towards Rep. Green. “Pay close attention to the man behind the congressman,” Geraldino says in this clip, “he seems to have forgotten the part about respect.” Watch it:

Here's my favorite part:

During the town hall, one conservative activist turns to his fellow attendees and asks them to raise their hands if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Almost all the hands shot up. Rep Green quickly turned the question on the audience and asked, “How many of you have Medicare?” Nearly half the attendees raised their hands, failing to note the irony.

Decades of conservative message dominance has convinced a healthy portion of the public that a government-run program isn't run by the government. Failure to counteract that message 30 years ago is deeply affecting this debate today. Paul Waldman writes:

After decades of being told that the federal government is a sinister, rapacious beast with nothing but evil intents, the idea that a complex bill might contain a Soylent Green provision isn't too far a stretch. Nonetheless, it remains entirely possible that before long, health reform will no longer be a debate but will become an actual policy, one that will succeed or fail on its own merits. As both sides have understood (the Republicans more so than the Democrats, however), this battle is so critical because the stakes go to the heart of each party's approach to the role of government.

Both parties hope that the successful implementation of their favored policies will lead to a broader acceptance of their ideology. Republicans want to privatize government services not only as an end in itself but to show people that the private sector works better than government. In the same way, Democrats advocate for effective government services not only to solve an immediate problem but to demonstrate that government can in fact do some things very well.

Unfortunately, the successful implementation of a government program doesn't necessarily convince people that government can successfully implement programs. Antipathy toward government even among many who receive both Medicare and Social Security -- two of the most successful government programs in history -- is remarkably strong. In fact, by some measures, the elderly have the most skeptical views of government. For instance, in the latest version of the Pew values survey, 64 percent of those over 65 -- who are either on Medicare and Social Security or know that they will be soon -- said that "when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful" (see page 34 here). That compares to only 43 percent of those age 18 to 29.

Part of that is just the tribal identity with conservatism (which is stronger in those over 65, based on most surveys) trumping the shared knowledge of government programs like Medicare and Social Security. Because these same people generally really like those programs; they've just convinced themselves, in a supreme case of cognitive dissonance, that government doesn't work well (except for whatever it is they're getting). And mainly, that's because they've heard this repeated from the conservative noise machine for thirty years, virtually unchallenged and sometimes enthusiastically endorsed by Democrats.

Or perhaps there's another answer. The polls are showing that people under 50 support health care reform at much higher levels than people over 50. It's no accident that the strongest smears against the plan have to do with killing grandma or taking things away from Medicare. They like what they have and are wary of extending it to the rest of the population, mainly because of how it might impact them.

But this is a funny type of skepticism. Seniors don't oppose government-run health insurance. They like it too much. Americans over 65 live in a welfare state that most Europeans could only dream about. They have single-payer health care and government-run pensions. Most of their political activity is either an effort to expand those programs or a defense against anything that could in any way harm them. That includes not only direct changes, like cuts to Medicare, but indirect changes, like health-care reform that would focus new resources on the uninsured.

This is a reversal of the normal politics of opposition. Generally speaking, people who oppose health-care reform are worried we're going to end up with something like what Canada has. Not seniors. They have something like what Canada has (Canada, in fact, also calls their health insurance program "Medicare"). And they like it. They report higher rates of satisfaction with their health care than do people in employer-sponsored insurance. They're worried, rather, that they might end up with something like what the rest of America has. And having spent time in both Medicare and private health insurance, they don't want that. They don't want that at all.

The fight to get successful government recognized is an ideological fight. To those who already have evidence of successful government, the fight is somewhat different. They still echo the conservative line of "government is teh suck," but they don't want their government programs tampered with. How do you thread that needle?

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