The United States has finally joined the ranks of other advanced nations by establishing something close to a universal health care system for its people. The legislation clearly leaves a lot to be desired, but history suggests that such entitlement programs (think Medicare) are almost always massively popular once they are passed. Hopefully the current legislation will prove to be the foundation for a true public system of health care provision in the future.
What was perhaps most interesting in the interminable fight over the health care bill was the opposition. Not a single Republican voted in favor of the legislation. The party mobilized against reform, branding it a form of state totalitarianism, as if the Cold War never ended and red-baiting tactics have just as much appeal as they did in 1965 when LBJ rammed Medicare through Congress.
The other main element of rhetorical opposition hinged on flagrant race-baiting, a tactic that is unfortunately less obviously and clamorously outdated. An article in Investors’ Business Daily compared health care reform legislation to affirmative action, saying that the bill is “affirmative action on steroids, deciding everything from who becomes a doctor to who gets treatment on the basis of skin color.” In addition, the article argues that the bill is a backhanded way of pushing the project of reparations for slavery since it will, according to their crazy logic, effect a massive transfer of wealth from white to black populations in the U.S.
These extreme positions should by all rights condemn the Republican party to utter political irrelevance, the overheated mouthpiece of an increasingly small segment of fundamentalist Christian white power zealots. Their cynical fear-mongering should consign them to the slagheap of history. Enough to think about the fact that over 44,000 people die each year because they lack adequate health insurance (see the Names of the Dead website, which attempts to put personal stories to some of these horrifying statistics).
But Republicans are counting on a revolt against big government akin to the one that turned Bill Clinton into a lame duck in the mid-1990s. The knives are being sharpened for November. There are already ominous rumblings in the air on a number of different spatial scales in this regard.
The International Monetary Fund recently released a report intoning the mantra of fiscal discipline and austerity for the world’s most wealthy nations. For the first time in history, the U.S. has the threat of structural adjustment from without (rather than, in the form of Reaganomics, from within) hanging over its head.
In addition, New Jersey’s newly elected governor is pushing through a raft of draconian budget cuts to deal with a looming budget deficit while refusing to raise taxes on the rich. A recent article in the New York Times suggested that these reactionary policies are actually popular not just with the rich but also with traditional Democratic sectors of the state’s population, who feel taxed to death. The ghost of California’s property tax rebellion (which led to the infamous Proposition 13) looms large. The present parlous state of California should be a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation, New Jersey included. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true.
The battle, it seems, remains largely the same: to expand social justice for the majority of the population while forestalling anti-tax, anti-state rebellions. Something’s got to give, and if it’s not the bloated U.S. military-industrial complex, it’s likely to be programs that benefit the most vulnerable segments of society. We can, in other words, expect further rounds of race-baiting and fiscal belt-tightening in sectors such as social provision (including education, of course).