Thursday, August 20, 2009

American psychos


Glen Greenwald is, as usual, on the money in this dissection of Obama's politicking around healthcare reform. Two key points: 1) the GOP don't want any healthcare reform, at all; 2) Obama is using the excuse of 'bipartisanship' - not needing GOP support, but desiring it in the interests of some specious national unity - to negotiate away the 'public option'. The knuckle-crunchers in the Democratic party, led by Rahm Emmanuel - who was appointed chief-of-staff for a reason - are cracking down hard on internal dissenters who favour a public health insurance system, but allowing the 'centrists' and 'Blue Dogs' (Dixiecrats as they would once have been called) to set the agenda. Tom Daschle doesn't get Emmanuel's stick for being the insurance industry's well-paid front-man, despite the administration's animadversions about that trade and its perverse incentives. The plan that is being arrived at, without the 'public option', has to be more or less what was sought.

This being the depressingly typical way in which politics is done in America, it has been rather odd to watch America's unusually large number of cranks get to work attacking Obama and his socialistic Nazi communist Muslim death panels. It has been pointed out that the last attempt at healthcare reform was defeated by the pharmaceutical-healthcare industry, with relatively little mass involvement. This reform process is being conducted with the industry on the inside, as it were - which is one reason why the potential for reform is being progressively eroded. The industry is working very hard to manage and contain reform from within, which it evidently saw coming a mile away (hence astro-turfing PR operations like this). This time, the major public attack is coming from people incited by Palin's claim that health reform would lead to 'death panels' in which bureaucrats get to inflict some foreign eugenics or euthanasia programme in all but name. It has been pointed out that those 'death panels' already exist, and they're all about the stars n stripes. But nonetheless, Palin is being defended by others on the Republican right such as Newt Gingrich, and continues to double down on her assertion when asked. At this one point one recalls the kind of race-baiting hysteria that Palin and the McCain campaign indulged in during the election campaign last year, and the mass audience that clearly existed for it - a minority, but a truculent minority with altogether too many guns. This is yet another expression of exactly the same derangement.

What accounts for it? Clearly, it is only incidentally about Obama's tepid healthcare proposals. The undercurrents of racism being reported at these rallies, and the appearance of heavily armed crowds, clearly indicates that something far greater is at stake. There are some good analyses out there, such as this piece on Al Jazeera, which - despite basically resting on Hofstadter's analysis of the 'paranoid style in American politics' - hits the nail on the head with this:

But the sheer manic intensity of the foam-flecked tirades bursting out in the town halls, so out of proportion to their proximate cause, bespeaks much deeper roots of rage.

These are some of the same people who howled "traitor!" and "kill him!" at Sarah Palin's rallies last year.

They are the ones convinced Obama is a Muslim "sleeper agent" who will destroy American values and hand the country over to Osama bin Laden.

The flip side of their rage is fear. They scream: "We want our country back!" Their country is one where white, Christian conservatives rule.


Right-wing Americans are said to believe in small government. Certainly, where that government is doing something to look after poor people, they are opposed to it. But historically, the state's legitimacy has always been unquestioned when it functioned as the racial state. When it functions in a racial capacity, either through its capacity to imprison, police, blockade immigration, or make war, its legitimacy is assured. I am not saying that these functions of the state can be reduced to racism - far from it. If you really want to get to grips with the reasons behind, eg, the rise America's authoritarian prison state, you should consult Ruth Wilson Gilmore. But if you think of America's astonishingly high prison population, the severity of its policing, the regularity and expense of its wars, the byzantine bureaucracies devoted to policing immigration, and the trashing of civil liberties - all of these are accepted by a sufficient number of people because of America's unique racial dynamics. In a similar way, the de-legitimising of the welfare state took the form of barely coded racial slurs about black 'welfare queens'.

The interesting thing is that most of those protesting stand to gain from these reforms, especially if there's a public option with any meaning. It would reduce insurance costs and reduce the incidence of people being denied treatment on the basis of previously existing conditions. But this is channelling an existential crisis for white conservatives, who think of the country as belonging to them. That crisis arises not because of who or what Obama is. All of the crazy stuff about Obama being born in Kenya, or being a secret Muslim, is merely symptomatic. It is because of what the potential new electoral coalitions, flagged up by the 2008 election, might mean for politics in the future. Look at the way protester Katy Abrams put it to Senator Arlen Specter a while ago:

"I don't believe this is just about healthcare. It's not about TARP. It's not about left and right. This is about the systematic dismantling of this country. I'm only thirty-five years old, I've never been interested in politics. You have awakened a sleeping giant. We are tired of this. This is why everybody in this room is so ticked off. I don't want this country turning into... Russia, turning into a socialised country. [applause, cheers, idiotic hooting] My question for you is, what are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created, according to the Constitution."

Well, there you are. It's not just about healthcare or any other particular issue. Nothing less than America's survival as the original invention of the founding fathers is at stake. Abrams sounds nuts, but she compares rather favourably to some of her compatriots in the lunacy stakes. The militant rightists who put on such an ugly show last year, particularly those given to prominently bearing arms, are in the tradition of racial 'counter-conspiracy'. From the KKK to the gangs who ethnically cleansed Chinese workers from the Pacific coastal towns, there is a long tradition of reactionaries taking matters into their own hands when the state appears to them to be neglecting its proper role. They argued that they were countering a malicious conspiracy on the part of their victims to destroy the country from within. And of course, since racism defined (and still defines) labour markets, state practises, political communities, etc., it was usually contiguous with other issues - class rebellion or conscientious objection - so that this kind of 'counter-conspiracy' could shade easily into anti-Bolshevism, pogroms against Mexican workers, union-busting, etc. The language now being deployed, about having to resist tyranny, about having to restore the Constitution, about having to resist the systematic dismantling of the country itself, clearly evokes this tradition and its martial tenor.

At base, this racist hysteria and paranoia isn't about 'status anxieties', nor is it a peculiar cultural tic. It is really about the possible threat of class dislocation and downward social mobility for relatively well-to-do whites, a threat that is being amplified by the recession. For such people, whose privileges have always been expressed through private property (however modest their actual possessions may be), the idea of any trend toward 'socialisation' really does seem menacing, weird, alien, threatening. They really want to believe that they can return to conspicuous consumption, even with the impossible debt levels and high working hours that has sustained such consumption. And they really do believe that this lifestyle, based on some spurious 'free market' values, is mandated in the Constitution, somehow part of the country's genetic make-up, stitched into the blueprints. They really do believe that this crisis for their way of life is a crisis being wrought by nefarious, treasonous others. And there is a ready-made militia movement, with tens of thousands of members already signed up, should they decide they have to take matters into their own hands. And if these people get serious, they'll make Timothy McVeigh look like Eddie Haskell.