Status Politics Again – Looking Back From the Future

August 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The news photos of health care reform protestors – invariably described as “angry” – remind me of the photos and footage of the angry protestors in Little Rock over a half century ago.

The boy in the picture on the right must be in his sixties today. When he sees this photo now, what does he think of himself, or of his parents or whoever it was that got him to carry the sign? And all those other protesters – how many years did it take, I wonder, for their anger to turn to embarrassment or even shame? Or are they still proud of their efforts to keep black children from going to school with white children?

And now we have people angrily protesting an attempt to ensure that all Americans have health care. How will these protesters feel in ten or twenty years when they look back? What will their children or grandchildren think when they see these pictures 50 years from now?

These protests are status politics (an earlier post on this is here). They are about the symbolic meaning of a policy rather than its actual consequences. Whatever fantasies about “race mixing” may have haunted the white protesters in Little Rock, in their more rational moments, they could not really have believed that desegregating schools would have some real effect on their kids’ education or lives. Instead, desegregation was a statement that they and their ideas had lost their status in US society.

In the same way, I find it hard to believe that the people screaming about Hitler, socialism, death panels, and the rest really want to keep 40+ million Americans uninsured and to keep US health care the least cost-effective in the world. Their protests, like those of the segregationists, are about “the government.” The government, in this sense, is the symbolic representation of the country. The message they heard in desegregation and hear now in “Obamacare” is that their position in the country is no longer the dominant one.


Anonymous said...

I've been drawing the same parallels myself. All those people throwing tomatoes and spitting at that little girl trying to go to an elementary school way back then have all grown up. I can't imagine all that ignorance disappearing. Has anyone interviewed any of those thousands of people who proudly held those signs as young people? Those who celebrated the murder of JFK in the South and called him a nigger lover? Racism cuts both ways. It leaves the oppressed poor and effed up if they live to tell about it; and turns the "oppressors" into children killing barbarians with chronic allergies to the truth. But I still maintain we are moving full steam ahead as a nation. They will now, just as they had to then, just get over it and move on. The racial divide in this country is slowly being replaced by a common sense divide. Crazies of all colors can go unite somewhere and the rest of us will move on.

Gabriel said...

i don't buy the analogy.
there's something special about ascriptive traits that gives us this sense "twas shameful that we were not always so enlightened." assuming that health care reform happens and we're looking back on the town hall protestors and such from the perspective of the future, a much closer analogy would be the people, and there were many of them, who vociferously opposed the New Deal. unlike the opponents of the civil rights movement we hardly remember the anti-New Deal people, and when we do we might see them as selfish or backwards, even baffling, but not viscerally evil in anything like the same way as this kid with the sign or the guy in boston with the flagpole, etc.
one clear example of this difference in memory is that you can make a respectable apologetic on both policy and procedural grounds for Lochner in legal academia whereas it's axiomatic that any criticism of Brown must be on purely procedural grounds (such as questioning the scientific validity and legal relevance of Kenneth Clark's "dolls" study) and conclude with alternate legal theory to reach the same results (such as a straightforward reversal of Plessy).

emt2121 said...

I see these people protesting the health care system to be extremely ignorant and uneducated, in less they all have gotten together to keep those 40 million + with out health care. I don’t understand is how they can relate Hitler to socialism, he was a fascist leader and socialism is no where near the same as fascism. another thing I don’t understand is why are people bring guns to these town hall meetings, and say they're do it to represent the second amendment, their is no reason to bring a fire arm to these kinds of meetings. this country is founded on a government based on the people, the governments purpose is to help the people. why everyone is fighting a good thing I don’t understand, I didn’t live through the African Americans coming into white public schools, but I’m still taught about it in class and I don’t understand how people could fight it, to me these protest have made no sense to me at all.

Jay Livingston said...

Gabriel. True, issues based on ascriptive traits are have a different moral aura. But I think your comment is really directed to the question of how we, the enlightened (anti-segregation and pro-healthcare) should judge these people. That was not my central concern. I was asking about how these protesters judge (or will judge) themselves.

I phrased my speculations as questions because I am curious as to how the ardent segregationists now regard their actions of fifty years ago. I really do not know. (Nor do I know how people who chose to go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao and thought that the Cultural Revolution was a noble effort feel now about their actions then.)

I was also responding to the visceral, hate-filled quality we see today that so much resembles that of the segregationists of the fifties. Like those earlier protesters, they feel that an entire way of life is at stake. So what I was asking is how they will feel a generation from now, assuming that we eventually get national health care and that the nation is the better for it and that their totalitarian fantasies have not materialized.

Gabriel said...


i think in retrospect people on both sides of the issue will not be ashamed of their stance and many may even be proud of it. as you mention, it's pretty likely to be sensitive to how successful reform proves to be, though i think reality is likely to be ambiguous enough that it could be perceived as either a success or a failure, depending on your perspective. imagine a not implausible scenario that the number of uninsured goes down (but still leaves out illegal immigrants, etc), health outcomes remain comparable to what they are now (give or take), waiting times for specialists and expensive tests go up, patent applications for drugs fall slightly, medical spending as a share of GDP continues to have a positive first derivative but the second derivative goes down, and the proportion of people enrolled in the public option gradually increases. in this scenario i think people who supported the reform would point to the first two issues to retrospectively justify their support, people who opposed it the second two issues, and the interpretation of the last two issues would be hotly contested. that is, reality is likely to present us with a little bit of something for everybody. take that and (as i previously mentioned) the idea that the welfare state just isn't the kind of thing that provokes retrospective shame, and i think you're unlikely to have any self-recrimination over this in the future.

as to how the former anti-civil rights people feel about themselves, i agree this is very interesting. my guess is that most of them have forgotten about the extent (or even fact) of their involvement and to the extent they do remember it (or are confronted with direct evidence) they contextualize it. i bet very few of them either a) say "we fought the good fight" or b) frequently think back on it with great remorse. it would be interesting to do a comparison of this and things like historical memory of collaboration with the nazis in countries like france and holland where much of the political class actually collaborated but the historical memory is that everyone was living in the woods, listening to the BBC/VOA, and blowing up supply trains.

maxliving said...

Much has been written about the Red Guard generation. Most of them express feelings of regret, and say that they were young and got swept up in the zeitgeist of the times. Although they have a bit more of an excuse than the Southerners because they likely faced danger if they dissented. My guess is that the segregationist Southerners would look back in similar ways--"we were young and that's what everyone around us was doing, and that's what we had always known."

veganelder said...

You apparently are asking about how people feel (after a lengthy passage of time) who took stances that later times/events proved to be egregiously misguided and/or "bad".

A good proxy for this might be the subsequent stances exhibited by the architects or and the perpetrators of the Jewish Holocaust during WWII. I think investigation on your part will find that these individuals don't change much at all. Numerous interviews with them, decades later, shows they believe they were justified.

My thought is that anyone bizarre enough...especially bizarre enough to advocate serious violence and/or oppression of others isn't going to do much changing over time (without medication or something). :-)