David Coates

Chapter 2: April 2010 Update

The first 3 months of 2010 were dominated politically by the struggle to pass health care reform. That struggle raised partisan bitterness to new heights, both in Washington DC and beyond.

The January 2010 victory of Scott Brown in the special Senate election in Massachusetts totally altered the dynamic of Senatorial politics, removing any possibility of a Democratic super-majority and leaving all legislation vulnerable to a Republican filibuster. The initial impact of that victory was two-fold: it brought health care reform to a temporary halt and took Republican intransigence to a new level. The Conservatives gathered at CPAC in February 2010 were convinced that significant victories in the mid-term elections were there for the taking, with Dick Cheney telling delegates that Obama would be a one-term president, and Marco Rubio, the te-party challenger to Charlie Crist in Florida, accusing the Obama administration of using the recession “not to fix America but to try and change America, to fundamentally redefine the role of government in our lives and the role of America in the world”.”The issues are so big, so consequential, so generational,” he said, “that many of the old rules of political engagement will not apply.” The atmosphere of intransigence in Washington created by the Republican Party’s retreat from “the old rules of political engagement” did not however go unchallenged President Obama to use the occasion of the National Prayer Breakfast (February 3 2010) to warn against an “erosion of civility”. “Those of us in Washington are not serving the people as well as we should,” he said, “at times, it seems like we’re unable to listen to one another, to have at once a serious and civil debate.”

Right-wing anger in Washington and the country was stoked throughout the health care debate by the extreme vitriol of the main conservative media figures and outlets. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that, with health care reform looming, America “was hanging by the thread”. He even briefly promised to emigrate to Costa Rica if the bill passed! (It did pass and sadly he didn’t emigrate). Glenn Beck continued to describe the reform as a government take-over of the health care industry and link that takeover to both fascism and communism! There were saner voices on the right, but they could hardly be heard: indeed, being ‘reasonable’ on the right could cost you employment or party support, as David Frum discovered to his cost when being dismissed by the American Enterprise Institute in March, and as Charlie Crist discovered when struggling against Marco Rubio in the Republican Party’s primary battle for Mel Martinez’s vacated Florida Senate seat.

If moderate conservatism was not a big presence in the US political debate in the first quarter of 2010, other forms of conservatism certainly were. What was heard (and seen – seen regularly on all the main news channels) more than anything else was the extremism of the Tea Party Movement. A Quinnipiac University poll cited in the March 27 edition of The New York Times found the Tea Party membership disproportionately white, evangelical and less educated than the average American. That is certainly how they appeared in their many rallies. Other polls found them disproportionately angrier too. It was anger that spilled out into the threat of violence against at least 10 Democratic lawmakers in the week after the health care bill was passed, and into scenes of racial chanting and spitting at lawmakers as they went to the Capital to vote on that bill. Most frightening of all perhaps, FBI agents only just caught in time 9 alleged members of a Christian militia known as the Hutaree, who were planning to kill police officers April 19 in order to trigger a wider armed revolt against the US government.

Glenn Beck even came up with a new conspiracy theory early in 2010, that of Richard Cloward and Francis Fox-Piven: academics who were reportedly plotting to so overload the US welfare system with demands and case work as to trigger a general collapse of US capitalism. It didn’t seem to worry Beck that the “plot” was hatched in an article written for “The Nation” magazine as long ago as 1966! (For the refutation of this nonsense, see Richard Kim, “The Mad Tea Party”, The Nation, April 12 2010) The individual elements of the conservative arguments and assertions circulating widely in the first quarter of 2010 may be nonsensical, but the cumulative drift of this talk of cataclysm remains extremely disturbing: fueling an undercurrent of anger, lack of respect for democratic process, and even a tolerance of the use of violence for political ends that might yet have appalling real consequences.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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