Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Specter town hall

Conveniently enough for me, as I was setting up this blog MSNBC was broadcasting a live feed from an Arlen Specter town hall meeting. I'm going to write much more about what's been happening at these events later, but one thing jumped out at me just from what I watched. The crowd seemed to be about 90-percent anti-reform/tea party activists and the Specter folks had handed out numbered cards in advance that allowed people to ask questions with some semblance of order. One of these questioners, a self-identified 25-year-old conservative, started calmly but quickly - and a few feet away from Specter - became emotional. Instead of a question or any real point about the health care bills she lumped the stimulus plan, TARP, and health reform into one single socialistic initiative and declared that she didn't want the United States to turn into a socialist country like Russia.

Russia hasn't been a socialist country for most of this woman's lifetime, so the Cold War-era ring to this line is really striking. So much of the rhetoric from the right erupting at these events seem to me to be so old-fashioned, like something unearthed from a 1950s time capsule. It's easy to dismiss these arguments as such -- especially when they're directed at someone like Arlen Specter, who's been a Democrat for all of 25 minutes. But these kinds of rants, that America's turning into the Soviet Union (or Nazi Germany, if you're Sarah Palin) reflect a stunning persistence in a Cold War form of American exceptionalism. Systemic social reform is unacceptable because it makes us look like an enemy long since destroyed.

I'm not sure how much of this stuff is about Obama, as most commentary suggests, rather than the calcified remains of a Cold War nationalism that still shapes much of the right. My friend Jonathan Riehl rightly invoked the John Birch Society when discussing the Birthers in Politico recently, connecting the conspiracy-minded element of Cold War conservatism with this modern iteration. The idea that health care reform -- the fundamentals of which are still almost entirely market based -- is destroying the Constitution or turning us into Russia suggests to me that these folks are more than Birchers 2.0, vigilantes, astroturf campaign stooges, or the undereducated underbelly of the shrinking GOP (they can be all of that too, of course). They are the people whose ideas of what the nation represents and of what their relationship to their state should be have not changed in 50 or even 80 years.

The trans-generational perpetuation of such ideas is striking. I could expect the Russia line from someone raised in the anticommunist fervor of the 1940s or 50s-- but to hear it out of a 25-year-old is an argument for persistence over change.

*Correction: turns out I mis-heard and that woman was 35, not 25. But still.


  1. Couldn't agree more: watching and listening to the protests against health reform can be very disorienting. Did these people just step out of some retro-fitted time-traveling tour bus piloted by Doc Brown? ("Marty, it's your kids, Marty. They live in a country with a BLACK SOCIALIST, NAZI President!!)

    Stepping back, though, it certainly fits the historical pattern and language of conservative opponents to change or reform in America in a general way. The chants by those at the meetings - that we should all fear Obama and his sinister plans to destroy America, the sentiment (echoed by the conservative media - Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh, et al) that 'this is not the America I grew up in' - all sound nearly identical to the arguments posed by those opposed to desegregation in the '60s, anti-immigrationists of the '20s, and defenders of slavery during the 19th century. The Cold War-accent of these current arguments makes sense for the same reason it shapes the worldviews of Neo-cons. It represents not only a victorious epoch in American hisotry, but provides simplicity in its good vs. evil paradigm. It allows for easy ellusion over the complexities of the problems with health care in our country, and provides much better inspiration for an opposition movement.

    As depressing as this is, and despite how effective such tactics can be, I am heartened by the fact that, by and large, these forces opposed to change, while effective in delaying it and to varying degrees producing much bloodshed in the process, have ultimately not proven successful in stopping it. Looking forward to future posts, Chris...

  2. Perhaps I can interest you in a patriotic tee: