The Greasy Pole

The Tea Party takes its medicine

For the other countries of the first world, a US government shutdown is a real curiosity. It might even be exciting, if it wasn’t for the consequences. We all have political problems, but only America deals with them by becoming Somalia for a while. And over healthcare? It’s a foreign impulse to the rest of us.

Stranger still are the motives behind it. The intransigent Republican congressmen responsible seem unsure both why they’re doing it, and what it is they want. Yes, they want Obamacare stopped, but they’ve had three elections, endless parliamentary votes and court challenges to do that, and all have failed. Now they’ve ground the government to a halt, they’re suddenly like student activists occupying an administration building. For all the excitement and rage, they have no clue what to do next.

“We’re not going to be disrespected,” said the Indiana Congressman Marlin Stutzman. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Meanwhile, the country and the world wait.

It’s idiotic, but what makes this idiocy possible is also one of the things that makes America great. The nation’s laws and constitution are full of prophylactics against tyranny – everything from the filibuster to the second amendment is a hedge against the corrupting influence of power, put there by people who had seen it in operation. But in the absence of a tyrant, these mechanisms have become like those little hammers attached to bus windows: they might save everyone in a future emergency, but right now, drunks and vandals are breaking a lot of windows.

Last time the Republican Party shut down the government was in 1996, and it was because they were winning, giddy on finally gleaning a parliamentary majority. This time the shutdown is because they’re losing. It’s true that a majority of the public oppose Obama’s healthcare reform, but the opposition is soft and confused. Ask respondents whether they support Obamacare, and a majority don’t. Ask whether they support the Affordable Care Act, and a majority do. They are, of course, the same thing.

However bad Obamacare’s numbers are, the Republicans’ are worse. Less than a quarter of those polled approve of the shutdown, in a country where pundits joke about a 23% ‘crazification’ factor of people who will support anything. The GOP’s approval rating has slumped to the lowest ever recorded for a major political party. But they insist they are doing the will of the American people. “I think we’re seeing momentum with the House of Representatives which has been standing together, listening to the American people,” said Senator Ted Cruz, one of the leading recalcitrants.

The silent majority seems unusually silent this time, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans deciding they know better. Their great fear isn’t that Obamacare will fail, but that it will work. Listen to the hardliner Michele Bachmann: “I think the reason is because President Obama can’t wait to get Americans addicted to the crack cocaine of dependency on more government health care. Because, once they enrol millions of more individual Americans, it will be virtually impossible for us to pull these benefits back from people.” Healthcare isn’t a necessity, it’s a gateway drug to being a moocher.

Without accessible healthcare, citizens might not survive long enough to mooch. Libertarian Ron Paul was cheered by Tea Party audiences when he said the uninsured should be allowed to die, and his own staff produced a sorry example. His campaign manager was uninsured due to a pre-existing condition, contracted viral pneumonia and died. His mother was sent his $400,000 medical bill, which a donation drive didn’t come close covering. No doubt it was all a valuable lesson in personal responsibility.

There’s an ugly neo-Confederate strain to the opposition to Obamacare, the fear that someone, somewhere, is giving your money to black people. 

The South isn’t just a different region, but a different kind of society, one still predicated on an honour code that died out elsewhere in the West a long time ago.

The Tea Party is still animated by a vision of a rugged, self-sufficient prairie America. It’s a place where asking for help is to invite dishonour, and offering help unbidden it is a sign of dangerous weakness. This place no longer exists: America looks much like everywhere else, with all the vagaries of a complex economy and ageing population. But that only adds to the rage.

The rage is hard to maintain though, and already the impasse looks like it will come to a close soon. Even at the height of the excitement, it was hard to miss that all the Tea Party’s febrile analogies, from the Alamo to Braveheart, came from lost causes.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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