A few weeks ago, while at my local library, I saw a discussion group assembling for their monthly meeting. One of the leaders of the group, recognizing me from another discussion group that I have attended, invited me to participate. Often, these discussions can be mind-numbing philosophical ones. But when she said the discussion would be about healthcare, I just couldn’t resist. And knowing that many in my area are of a conservative persuasion, I thought it would be interesting to hear things from their perspective. And I must say that I wasn’t disappointed.
So the moderator asked an open-ended question to get things started. How is healthcare working in America? An elderly 80-something woman said that her healthcare was just fine, thank you and that healthcare works just fine as long as the government isn’t involved. I gently reminded her that her insurance comes from Medicare which is a government program. Nonplussed, she said that the government didn’t give her that insurance; she paid for it. Not wanting to rock the boat, especially as a first time invited guest, I backed off.
But wanting to make a point, I then argued that if Medicare, while not perfect, if it seems to work for our oldest population in the worst health, couldn’t it work at least as well if we included all of the younger, healthier people in the risk pool? This predictably got lots of grumbling from many about what they see as the “government takeover of healthcare” by the dreaded Obamacare.
Then to try and drive my point home, I said that the overhead for Medicare is at about 3% which is far lower that the overhead for private insurance companies that can be around 15 or 20%. This was too much for them to hear and they let me have it with both barrels. What I said couldn’t possibly be true because in their minds government is always more wasteful and less efficient than private companies. With the majority there strongly believing this, it was difficult to argue further. I just wish that I had an Internet article like this one or this one at my disposal to try and support this vital point I was trying to make.
Once the group got really riled up, they started talking about how they don’t want government to make them pay for somebody else’s insurance. And then another person sitting across from me said he didn’t want to pay for food stamps so others could use them to buy filet mignon and lobster. What I wanted to say was that while someone could indeed buy these with food stamps, their monthly allotment for food would run out well before when it would be due to be replenished. But clearly, this was about emotion and not logic. More specifically, it was about their emotional frenzy against just about anything the government does.
There’s a lot of government hating out there – which would make sense if we had a dictatorship we didn’t elect in control of us. But as much as we may not like some of those who lead us, they did have to legitimately win an election to get where they are. Doesn’t that count for something?
Big government is taking away our freedom, they say. If government can’t be cut down enough to suit some, shut it down. And then there is the wish of conservative anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist who has stated that he wants to see the government so small that we can "drown it in the bathtub". So what’s really feeding all of this relentless anti-government sentiment? I think I know. Let me explain.
While we all know that a government that is too strong is bad because it is repressive to its citizens, it is less intuitive that a government that is too weak is just as bad but for a different reason.
A civilized society needs not only rules and regulations, but also somebody to enforce them. And that’s government. Among many other needs we have, we need to know that the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink is safe. We need to know that our workplaces are safe and free of exploitation. We want to be assured that people or businesses who make money from us do it without ripping us off through unfair or deceptive practices.
When government power is weakened too much, it creates a power vacuum. One that is gladly filled by corporate and moneyed interests. To use the examples above, it is a political environment where companies don’t have to worry so much about pollution, or whether their workplaces are dangerous or their employees are being exploited or whether they can get away with the abuses like those in the financial sector that largely brought on the financial crash of 2008.
So when we see that a weakened government means more wealth and power for big business and big money, maybe there is indeed a hidden agenda behind all of the anti-government rhetoric. But nobody can get far by saying that their agenda is to make more money, pay less taxes, have less regulation – and then use the additional money they make to buy even more power through lobbying and campaign contributions. So they have to argue that it’s all about freedom from big government. And for those in the Tea Party and likeminded people who already have an inherent dislike of government, this is an easy sell.
While it can be argued that these people simply want smaller government, their actions are rife with hypocrisy. When it comes to food stamps to help the hungry, unemployment benefits to help the jobless, or health insurance to help those without access to healthcare, that’s too much big government and has to end! But when it comes to more government handouts to the wealthy and to already highly profitable corporations, they make much less of a fuss. Perhaps it’s as simple as not wanting to bite the hand that is feeding (or in this case financing) them. Having said this, the marriage between the Tea Party and corporate America has not always been a smooth one. Shutting down the government or even the threat of it was not at all appreciated by the business community.
So the result of all of this has been an economy that in the last decade or so has been dreary for many of us in the middle and lower classes while meanwhile, large corporations and the wealthy have prospered handsomely. And with the economy still hurting many people, it is easy for those on the right to say that we need a Republican president since the one we have now hasn’t been able to do much – ignoring the fact that much of his ineffectiveness has been due to the obstructionism by Republicans in Congress, all under the pretense of promoting small government.
While many political observers question whether a Republican will be able to carry a presidential election anytime soon considering the growing minority population, the party will still exert a significant amount of power in Congress and in many state governments. With many congressional districts gerrymandered so that most Republicans are in safe districts, they are expected to remain in control of the House after the 2014 midterm elections. And with many Democratic seats up for election in so-called “red states” which are often known for their strong anti-government sentiments, Republicans have a decent chance of gaining a Senate majority, too.
It was liberal commentator and comedian Bill Maher who said that he can understand why rich people vote Republican since that is whose interests they look out for. It’s the others who aren’t rich and vote Republican that are more difficult to understand. In my view, what is saddest is that many of the middle class and poor who have endured the most economic struggles in these down times will enthusiastically continue to vote Republican because they still believe fighting what they see as “big government” or “socialism” is the way to improve their lot in life – while those pulling the strings behind the scenes will continue to be laughing – all the way to the bank!