Right-wing thugs and corporate “reforms”

August 17, 2009

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor looks at how pro-business interests teamed up with the far right to foment staged protests over health care reform--and why Obama's policies have played into their hands.

TOWN HALL meetings that were supposed to be forums to debate the merits of President Barack Obama's health care plan have turned into frightening exhibitions of right-wing demagoguery and thuggish attacks fueled by right-wing radio and Fox News in particular.

Yet the polarized debate surrounding Obama's health care plan has obscured the extent to which his plan is deeply flawed and insufficient to cover the overwhelming health care needs of tens of millions of people who currently lack health insurance. Indeed, Obama's health care plan is marked by the same corporate priorities as his other initiatives, such as bailing out the banks with trillions of taxpayer dollars.

But even Obama's business-approved proposed changes to the health care system go way too far for the Republican right. At one recent town hall meeting in Missouri, an African American woman who brought with her a poster of Rosa Parks was assaulted by a white man, who appeared to push her while ripping the poster from her hands. When the woman attempted to retrieve her poster, several armed officers swooped down on her and physically removed her from the auditorium.

Right-wing protesters rally against health care reform
Right-wing protesters rally against health care reform

At several other town hall sideshows, some white people have shown up with racist signs taunting Obama. The atmosphere is eerily similar to raucous campaign stops last summer for the McCain-Palin ticket, where shouts of "kill him" could be heard when Obama's name was mentioned.

So it shouldn't be surprising, then, that Sarah Palin stoked the atmosphere of racism and violence at the town hall meetings recently when she claimed that Obama's health care initiative would create government "death panels" to decide when old people should be put to death because their medical care was too costly.

In sync and on cue, right-wing radio host and prescription drug addict Rush Limbaugh went further comparing African American President Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler because of the fictional "death panels." This is lunacy. Unfortunately, it's not a laughing matter.

Limbaugh and his cohorts in right-wing cable news--including immigrant bashers like Lou Dobbs on CNN and Fox's Glenn Beck, who called Obama a racist in response to Obama's initial comments in the aftermath of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates--are whipping up a frenzied atmosphere in which the potential for racism and violence grows each day. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, where Obama spoke in person, a middle-aged white man showed up to "welcome" the president with a loaded handgun.

The Republicans have been employing some aspects of this strategy for months now. Last April, they launched the so-called "tea party" demonstrations against incremental tax increases to the rich--which they also referred to as socialism. Most were staged events with backing from former Republican members of Congress and right-wing millionaires and billionaires.

These people know that in this economic climate, they don't stand a chance politically by forthrightly condemning all expansion of government programs, because the vast majority of Americans support such expansion. So the right-wing forces operate behind the scenes to make these protests--from the "tea parties" to the town hall melees--seem like they're part of a right-wing grassroots movement.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman rightly calls the organizations staging the protests "Astroturf"--as in fake grassroots. Unfortunately, their impact and effect has been magnified by the overwhelming media coverage, which has the effect of making these fringe organizations and individuals look like they are substantive part of the debate.

But it's not only the media that have helped fuel the atmosphere that has engulfed the health care debate. Also to blame are cynical politicians from Washington who brazenly seek to use racism and scapegoating to cover their general hostility to the notion of health care for all. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) claims Obama's health care reform will provide "free health care" to 6 million "illegal aliens"--to name but one example.

The new charges of "socialism" coming from the lunatic right are, in some ways, more sinister than last winter, when the right was hyperventilating about the $787 billion stimulus package. "Socialism" this time around has become the new word for "welfare"--and all of the racist connotations that go along with it.

When King makes the ludicrous charge that undocumented workers in this country will receive free health care, he knows full well that Obama's health care "reform" doesn't offer free health care to anyone, let alone non-citizens. Using such language is a conscious ploy to whip up racial animus and dodge the real discussion about the problems with the health care system in this country.

King and others like him want to promote the idea that any version of "national health care" will mean giving health care away to those who don't deserve it. The right-wing billionaire CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, recently summed up this attitude when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "We are all responsible for our own lives and our own health. We should take that responsibility very seriously and use our freedom to make wise lifestyle choices that will protect our health. Doing so will enrich our lives and will help create a vibrant and sustainable American society."

THIS IS really what the health care debate is about. By using racism and scapegoating to reframe the discussion, the right hopes to avoid a genuine discussion about real health care reform in the U.S. Central to this effort are the so-called Blue Dog--or more aptly, Blue Cross--Democrats, a caucus of conservatives in the party. This group is incredibly hostile even to Obama's watered-down health care reform, because they are bitterly opposed to the notion that health care should be a right and not a privilege.

The irony is that Obama has already bowed to business interests on health care, just as he has on other issues. While the Obama administration was willing to give the banks that created the economic catastrophe tens of billions of dollars and demand little or nothing in return, Obama forced auto manufacturers into bankruptcy while demanding that their unions give up long-held and hard-fought gains in health care, retirement and wages as well as agree to massive job loss.

Moreover, where Obama the presidential candidate vowed to fight for Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make joining a union easier, President Obama abandoned the legislation early on and has rarely even mentioned the bill's name.

Today, states across the country are facing bankruptcy, and budget cuts threaten thousands of state-funded social programs. Yet Obama stands by watching, effectively saying--as President Gerald Ford did more than 30 years ago when New York City was on the cusp of financial collapse--"Drop dead."

The pattern could not be clearer. Corporations and bank profits come first; ordinary people, last. This was not the "change" people were looking for when they voted for Obama. As the economy crashed last autumn, Obama rallied millions of Americans with the hope and expectation that his administration would represent a break with the status quo and would fight for real change in Washington. Today, though, the Obama health care initiative stands as only the latest example of how far Obama's policies have moved from his promises.

Back when he was an Illinois state senator, Obama favored a single-payer, Medicare-type health care plan like that of Canada and Western European countries. Presidential candidate Obama backed off his support for single-payer, but still supported some kind of publicly funded health insurance option that would guarantee that everyone--including the poor, the unemployed and the under-insured--received coverage. Ending the war in Iraq and taxing the rich--whose taxes had been precipitously cut by the George W. Bush administration--would pay for the plan.

Instead, when the corporations and insurance companies put up a fight--as one could only expect they would--the Obama administration continues to cave into their demands. Thus, the public option has been all but taken off the table. Yet if there's no public health care option in the midst of a recession, which will likely followed by a jobless recovery that will cause millions more to lose their health care--what exactly is the extent of the reform?

THE PROBLEMS with the Obama agenda aren't just about dashed hopes or even broken promises, however. There's growing frustration over how the Obama administration's policies have paved the way for the right to reconstitute itself after its humiliating defeat in last November's elections.

A comeback for the right wasn't inevitable. The election of Obama and the rejection of the right on a whole number of social questions showed concretely how mass consciousness has moved to the left. The new administration had an opportunity to crush the right by aggressively pursuing an agenda that captured the mood of most Americans--nationalizing the banks, crafting a $1 trillion stimulus package for ordinary Americans as opposed to the banks and taxing the rich to pay for nationalized health insurance--something that a New York Times poll showed was supported by 72 percent of Americans.

Obama and the Democrats could have pushed for passage of EFCA, since polls show most American workers want to be in a union. They could have put a moratorium on foreclosures and bailed out people's mortgages through government-mandated refinancing. Popular support for such an agenda was there--the election gave Obama a clear mandate to forego "bipartisanship" and marginalize the Republican Party for a generation.

Instead, the Democrats, led by Obama, have gone in the other direction. They appeal to bipartisanship and cut deals with the discredited Republicans while sacrificing every opportunity to unequivocally come out on the side of ordinary working and poor people in this country--people who, for all the happy talk in the media about the recession drawing to a close, continue to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the money is there to maintain and expand the U.S. empire. Despite Obama's pledge to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, the Pentagon plans to remain there for decades, and Obama is rapidly escalating the war in Afghanistan as well.

All this is creating an enormous political vacuum in American politics today. If the left can't fill the vacuum, the right will try to do so--and this is what we're witnessing now in the town hall meeting "uprisings." The Republicans, devoid of any real plan to help working people in the economic crisis, have put their party behind the stewardship of the loony right, Rush Limbaugh and the congressional neo-Confederates of the South who led the fight against Latino Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. These forces are willing to use any rhetoric or tactic they can--from racism to scapegoating--to prevent expanding the role of government to help the mass of Americans who need it.

The right has an opportunity to grow right now, but not to the extent that the mass media would have us believe. Those of us on the left must marvel at how easy it is for right-wing fringe groups to get robust media coverage as they have with these "Astroturf" anti-health care organizations over the last several weeks, while legitimate grassroots single-payer activists are regularly blocked out by the same media. The media focus on these rightist groups and their manufactured protest movement makes it seem as if they represent a legitimate part of the debate.

They don't. The overwhelming majority of Americans have consistently, over the last several years, expressed the desire for some kind of national health care, even when it means higher taxes. When a non-profit health care group recently set up a free clinic in Los Angeles, more than 1,500 people showed up for everything from dental care to routine checkups, to mammograms and beyond.

This represents the real face of the health care crisis in the U.S.--not the boardroom-cultivated "angry white mob" threatening to hang the president and demanding "their country back." But despite the fringe nature of these protests and groups, even they can begin to attract a legitimate audience if there's no hope for the future.

The economic crisis of the 1930s--which everyone universally uses as a marker to judge the crisis of today--showed that rage and frustration in economic hard times can cut both ways, to the left and to the right. That's why our side must mobilize independently of the Democrats and demand more funding for the programs people desperately need in these times of economic hardship.

We must declare that if the federal government can flood the banks with money so that Goldman Sachs executives can once again collect multimillion-dollar bonuses, then surely that same government can pay for genuine universal health care--and tax the rich to pay for it.

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