Status Politics and Anti-HealthCare

August 13, 2009  
Posted by Jay Livingston

The hard core protesters are making it clear that for them, this isn’t really about health care. It’s about something much larger.

Poor Arlen Specter. He may have wanted to talk about health care, but as the New York Times  reported yesterday, many in the crowd didn’t want to discuss coverage.
They got up before dawn in large numbers with angry signs and American flag T-shirts, and many were seething with frustration at issues that went far beyond overhauling health care. . . .
“This is about the dismantling of this country,” Katy Abram, 35, shouted at Mr. Specter, drawing one of the most prolonged rounds of applause. “We don’t want this country to turn into Russia.”
For Obama and the Democrats, it’s about getting it right and getting it passed. For several other interested parties (insurance companies, Big Pharma, and the rest), it’s about economic self-interest. But for the protesters – the people shouting down discussion at town meetings, carrying signs about “socialism,” ranting about rationing and “death panels” – the issue has taken on symbolic qualities that have nothing to do with health care and much to do with status politics.

Harold Lasswell famously said, “Politics is who gets what, when, and how.” But status politics has little to do with tangible interests. Status politics is flying the Confederate flag on the state capitol. It has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with status. Campaigns to make English the “official language” have this same quality. The question is not who gets what. Instead the question is: whose country is this?

My thinking in all this is inspired by Joseph Gusfield’s Symbolic Crusade, about the temperance movement, which grew in the late 19th century and achieved its greatest victory in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment.

As Gusfield puts it,
Since governmental actions symbolize the position of groups in the status structure, seemingly ceremonial or ritual acts of government are often of great importance to many social groups.
Gusfield argues that while anti-alcohol laws may have been about the evils of drink, they also reaffirmed the cultural and political dominance of those who had been running the country but now felt their position threatened. Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, these groups – Protestant, rural or small-town, middle class, and agrarian – saw new groups rising to challenge the position of dominance that they had long taken for granted. These arrivistes were largely urban rather than rural, industrial rather than agrarian, Catholic rather than protest, lower class or upper class rather than middle, cosmopolitan rather than local, modern rather than traditional. And they drank. They did not share the old order’s value on abstinence as a sign of virtue, nor did they deem it a necessity for respectability.

By passing laws, especially a national law, the old order could reassure themselves that America was still their country. Then, in 1929, it became clear that what they had been doing with their country hadn’t turned out so well, and in 1932 the “Roosevelt coalition” – urban, ethnic, industrial (plus the anti-Republican South) – swept them out. Notably, one of the first things on the agenda was Repeal.

With health care, the status-politics issue is less clear because private and public insurance are not important aspects of any group’s identity. But these protesters bear a strong resemblance to the temperance constituency – white, non-urban, middle class, local, largely Protestant, anti-immigrant. They are Palin’s peeps.

Ever since Obama took office, they have been looking for a battleground issue where they could show that they were still in control. The financial bailout might have been the Big Issue, but since the economy tanked when Bush had been in control for eight years, it was hard to blame the crisis on Obama or the Democrats. And Bush himself had been the one to start tossing huge sums to Wall Street. The Teabaggers didn’t really have an issue; they could never clarify what they were against let alone what they were for. Foreign policy? Most Americans would prefer to forget about Iraq. They feel that any foreign policy would be better than what Bush got us into.

So health care is where the old order makes its stand. Early on, their spokesman Rush Limbaugh said flat out that he was rooting for Obama to fail. So they protest “Obama care.” But the issue is not really health care, and not even the president. Obama – urban, non-white, cosmopolitan, with ties to both the lower class (community organizing on Chicago’s South Side) and the upper class (Harvard Law) – has become the symbol of their loss of dominance.

The protesters remind me of a spoiled child used to having his way. “Seething with frustration,” is how the Times reporter put it – frustration at losing their position of dominance. They feel that despite Obama’s getting a majority of the votes, his Presidency is still an illegitimate usurpation. The “birthers” make this claim explicitly. But the health care protesters seem to share this idea that their power has been illegitimately taken from them. “I demand my voice,” said one of the signs at the Specter meeting, implying that even if that voice was in the minority and had lost the election, it still should carry the day.

But the protesters, the followers of Fox News and Limbaugh, still can’t grasp that they were outvoted last November. They still think that the US is their country. In the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush years, they knew it was their country. Democrats were allowed to live in it as long as they accepted that dominance. If they dissented, they were accused of treason. “America – love it or leave it.”

Yet even though they are now in the minority, they still think that they are “the Real America” and that the US still belongs to them. But the Real America is coming face to face with reality.
The change has been coming for a while. – the 2006 elections were a sign of this political and cultural shift as I suggested at the time (here) . But the election of Obama and now the possibility that he will enact a real change confronts them with the reality of their loss of dominance. That’s why they see health care in such apocalyptic terms. That’s why I also fear that their tantrums may turn even uglier.


trrish said...

An excellent post, Jay. Should be in the Times. While the Wilmore thing on the Daily Show is funny, your argument is so much more nuanced and complex.

And, I agree with your fear about what might happen. I've had the same thought. I've followed some of the discussions on Twitter. There is so much anger, fear and lies that I had to stop reading it. I've been on a diet of "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me' podcasts for a few days to clear my head :-)

Jeff said...

My fear is not so much that the claims will get uglier, but that the ugliness will win.
I think THE major argument for reform is that the market for health insurance is not competitive at present. This being the case, government intervention is a necessity.

Jay Livingston said...

Jeff, I didn't mean that the claims might get uglier. I meant that the protests might become violent. As Gail Collins says in today's Times, some of these protesters are the same folks who think it's a good idea to walk around carrying a loaded gun.

Bob Velez said...

Wow . . . did a 'Google search' on status politics at the behest of my advisor and glad I did.

As an aspiring political scientist, these developments are of great interest to me.

Excellent post!

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, Thanks so much for the generous comment. It's the sort of thing bloggers wish they heard more of.

veganelder said...

Well done! This post is an excellent and insightful summation of an ongoing "slow-motion train wreck" aspect of the culture. Thank you.

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