It’s Not About Obamacare

October 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why are some Republicans willing to shut down the government and to force the US to default on its debts in order to prevent a health care system very much like the one instituted in Massachusetts – a plan designed by a conservative think tank (the Heritage foundation) and instituted by a Republican governor (Mitt Romney)?

Maybe it’s not about health care.

Four years ago, in the early days of the fight against Obamacare, it seemed to me that healthcare was a symbolic issue, a matter of status politics. (That post is here.)  For many of the protesters, the question was not which healthcare policy would be good for who. The question was: whose country is this anyway?

These were Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” – older, white, non-urban – and they had long assumed that it was their country.  And they were right.  But the 2008 election was a rude reminder that they were becoming a minority – less influential, less powerful, less respected. The passage of Obamacare would somehow inscribe that diminished status into a law.  So Obamacare became the decisive battle in the fight to “take back our country.”* If we lose, if Obamacare takes effect, it’s their country.

In this apocalyptic style of thinking, Obama and Obamacare balloon from political opponent into something close to absolute evil.  And if you’re fighting evil, compromise is not an option.

Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto’s recent book, Change They Can’t Believe In, fills out this picture of the adamant Right. The Tea Partistas are not just a more strident versions of traditional conservatives.  Issues that engaged the traditional right – e.g., a muscular foreign policy – are not so important to them.  They are much more likely to emphasize the illegitimacy of the Obama administration. 

Parker and Barreto found differences like these by comparing the postings on Tea Party websites with those of National Review Online. (The National Review has long been the voice of conservatism – and not even “moderate” conservatism – but it’s not Tea Party).  The NRO posts were mostly devoted to policy matters. But on the Tea Party sites, over half the content had a flavor that Parker says is “more in line with Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics” – conspiracy theories, and attacks on Obama.

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

The data come from graphs posted at a WaPo Wonkblog interview with Parker (here). I don’t know what their coding scheme was, and I wonder about some of the absent topics. Immigration is the only domestic policy issue on the charts.  No guns, no healthcare, no taxes, etc. 

When Republicans think about Obama, legitimacy is the overarching issue.  Here is a word cloud of focus groups of Republicans – from Tea Party to moderates – asked about Obama.**


While all saw Obama as a liar, the Tea Partistas and Evangelicals said that what the lies and deceit were hiding was a socialist-Marxist agenda and that Obama himself was a Muslim and a tyrant,a non-citizen, a supporter of terrorism, and a “masonic Devil Illuminati.”  In fact, the word cloud shows devil turning up with the same frequency as dumbass (though for all I know, those could be n = 1).

In sum, the hard-core right views the Obama government as illegitimate and corrupt, and they fear that its success will mean total transformation of American society, a transformation in which they and people like them will lose status and power. That success, they fear, will come from the new health care law. As Andrew Sullivan says, “nothing represents their sense of loss and anger more powerfully than Obamacare.”

So don’t ask why some people are willing to shut down the government and to have the US default on its financial obligations, with all the damage that may bring to the economy of the nation and the world, in order to thwart a change in healthcare policy.  It’s not about Obamacare.

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* In my “Repo Men” post (here), I offered some data showing that his imagery of “taking back our country” is much more a staple of out-of-power Republicans than Democrats.

** A pdf. of the report by Stan Greenberg and James Carville is here .

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