“Yes, Opposition To Obamacare Is Tied Up With Race”: A Staple Of Conservative Rhetoric Since The Beginning Of His Presidency
Is opposition to Obamacare really about race? That’s the highly charged question that has bubbled up in the last day or so, starting with a Senate hearing and then bursting into the news media. I won’t keep you in suspense: The answer is, “Yes, but . . . .” Not all opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and not from all people, and not at all times. But two things are clearly true. First, some conservatives with large megaphones have worked hard to use the ACA as a tool of race-baiting, encouraging their white audiences to see the law through a racial lens. And second, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that race plays a role in many people’s opposition to the law.
Before we get into details, this is coming up now because of an exchange between senators Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at a hearing. Here’s how it started:
“It’s very important to take a long view at what’s going on here. And I’ll be able to dig up some emails that make part of the Affordable Care Act that doesn’t look good, especially from people who have made up their mind that they don’t want it to work. Because they don’t like the president, maybe he’s of the wrong color. Something of that sort,” Rockefeller said. “I’ve seen a lot of that and I know a lot of that to be true. It’s not something you’re meant to talk about in public, but it’s something I’m talking about in public because that is very true.”
Senator Johnson reacted angrily, saying that because he was the only Republican in the room, it looked like Sen. Rockefeller was accusing him of being racist — a not uncommon reaction to this kind of accusation.
This morning, MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough said:
“I must say, I have been behind closed doors with thousands of conservatives through the years. I have never once heard one of them say in the deep south or in the northeast or in South Boston, ‘Boy, I really hate Obamacare because that black president’ — no, I’ve never heard anybody come close to saying that,” Scarborough said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “And I have spoken to some wildly right wing groups. I have never heard it once.”
There are many reasons why a person might oppose the Affordable Care Act, and there are many people who are opposed to it. You can oppose it for reasons having nothing to do with race. You can oppose it and not be a racist. Heck, I suppose you can even be a racist but oppose it for non-racial reasons.
But let’s return to the two other truths I mentioned up top, that at least some of the opposition to the ACA is tied up with race and that there has been an unusual amount of race-baiting from the right during this presidency, both in general and on the issue of health-care reform.
On the first question, there is a growing body of evidence that people’s implicit or explicit ideas about race affect how they look at the Affordable Care Act. Let me quote from the abstracts of studies done by political scientists and psychologists over the last few years:
“Using a nationally representative experiment over two waves, I induced several emotions to elicit anger, fear, enthusiasm, or relaxation. The results show that anger uniquely pushes racial conservatives to be more opposing of health care reform while it triggers more support among racial liberals.” [paper here]
“Controlling for explicit prejudice, implicit prejudice predicted a reluctance to vote for Obama, opposition to his health care reform plan, and endorsement of specific concerns about the plan. In an experiment, the association between implicit prejudice and opposition to health care reform replicated when the plan was attributed to Obama, but not to Bill Clinton — suggesting that individuals high in anti-Black prejudice tended to oppose Obama at least in part because they dislike him as a Black person. In sum, our data support the notion that racial prejudice is one factor driving opposition to Obama and his policies.” [paper here]
“This study argues that President Obama’s strong association with an issue like health care should polarize public opinion by racial attitudes and race. Consistent with that hypothesis, racial attitudes had a significantly larger impact on health care opinions in fall 2009 than they had in cross-sectional surveys from the past two decades and in panel data collected before Obama became the face of the policy. Moreover, the experiments embedded in one of those reinterview surveys found health care policies were significantly more racialized when attributed to President Obama than they were when these same proposals were framed as President Clinton’s 1993 reform efforts.” [paper here]
“This study investigates the relationship between individual-level support for the 2010 Affordable Care Act and nativism, the perception that a traditional American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. The results of an analysis of a 2011 public opinion survey demonstrate that nativism was an independent and significant predictor of opposition to health care reform and that this effect held for both Republicans as well as Democrats, although the relationship is stronger for Republicans.” [paper here]
What this demonstrates is that when we approach a policy issue, none of us looks at it in a vacuum. We bring to it the ideas and opinions we associate with the people and parties advocating the various positions, among other things. Now add to that the fact that since Barack Obama took office in 2009, conservatives have been told, over and over and over again, that Barack Obama is coming to do them harm precisely because of their race.
No one who pays any attention to conservative media can honestly deny that this has been the case. The idea that Barack Obama is leading an army of black people coming to exact revenge on whites for past sins has been a staple of conservative rhetoric since the beginning of his presidency. Often, this is framed in terms of reparations for slavery: whatever policy Obama happens to be advocating at the moment, including health-care reform, conservative audiences are told that it is an effort by Obama to take their money and give it to black people to right a historical wrong for which they are blameless. In a 2009 discussion about the stimulus bill, Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations!” Not long before, Limbaugh said this:
“The president of the United States? We’re talking now about a Supreme Court justice? The days of them [racial minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry, he’s gon’ cut this country down to size, he’s gon’ make it pay for all its multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on.”
And yes, that was a little black dialect Rush threw in there, just to be clear. About the ACA, Limbaugh said, “This is a civil rights bill, this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.” Or another time: “I think I’ve finally figured out why Obama is pushing so hard on this health care bill. He just wants us to have the same health care and plan that he had in Kenya.” In early 2012, Limbaugh said this:
“Obama has a plan. Obama’s plan is based on his inherent belief that this country was immorally and illegitimately founded by a very small minority of white Europeans who screwed everybody else since the founding to get all the money and all the goodies, and it’s about time that the scales were made even. And that’s what’s going on here. And that’s why the president is lawless, and that’s why there is no prosecution of the Black Panthers for voter intimidation, because it’s not possible for a minority to intimidate the white majority. It’s not possible. It’s always been the other way around. This is just payback. This is ‘how does it feel’ time.”
Rush Limbaugh has the largest talk-radio audience in the United States, and he is admired and lauded by one Republican politician after another. But it isn’t just him. Bill O’Reilly told his viewers, “I think Mr. Obama allows historical grievances — things like slavery, bad treatment for Native Americans and U.S. exploitation of Third World countries — to shape his economic thinking. . . . He gives the bad things about America far too much weight, leading to his desire to redistribute wealth, thereby correcting historical grievance.” Almost any domestic policy choice, whether it involves taxes or budgets or health care, can be characterized as an act of racial vengeance exacted upon whites for the benefit of blacks.
Glenn Beck has been another prominent advocate of the reparations theory. “Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill,” he said in 2009, “are transforming America. And they are all driven by President Obama’s thinking on one idea: reparations.” When the Shirley Sherrod story broke (that is, when Andrew Breitbart deceptively edited video of a speech the Agriculture Department official gave to make is seem as if she were confessing to treating white people unfairly when she was actually saying the opposite), Beck said, “Have we suddenly transported into 1956 except it’s the other way around? . . . Does anybody else have a sense that there are some that just want revenge? Doesn’t it feel that way?”
Intimations of actual violence to come are rare, but they’re out there. Beck once said the New Black Panther party was part of Obama’s “army of thugs.” Conservative science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card, author of “Ender’s Game,” imagined a future in which Obama seized dictatorial powers and mobilized “young out-of-work urban men” into a brownshirt army. “Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people ‘trying to escape’ — people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.”
This is the rhetoric in which conservatives have been marinating for five years. Given that, it is not at all surprising that for some of them — I repeat, for some of them — ideas about Obama’s policies, including the Affordable Care Act, are inextricably bound to their feelings, whether conscious or unconscious, about race. It would be irresponsible and unfair to say that all or even most opposition to the ACA is rooted in racism. But it would be blind to deny that race has had a role in keeping that opposition so fervid for so long.
By: Paul Waldman, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, May 23, 2014
The Benghazi blueprint matches up right down to the fact that there’s no there there, in terms of a criminal White House cover up. It “doesn’t add up to much of a scandal,” wrote Michael Hirsh at Politico this week, reviewing the facts of Benghazi to date. “But it’s already too late for the truth. Benghazi has taken on a cultural life of its own on the right.” He added, “Benghazi has become to the 2010s what Vince Foster” was in the 1990s.
Foster was the then-deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in Northern Virginia’s Fort Marcy Park on July 20, 1993, not far from Washington, D.C. His suicide, which sparked controversy when the so-called Clinton Crazies accused the president and his wife of being part of a plot to murder their friend (he knew too much!), quickly become shorthand for the type of despicable claims that were so casually lobbed in the 1990s.
Looking ahead to Hillary Clinton’s possible 2016 presidential run, Hirsh wrote that the “Benghazi-Industrial Complex is going to be as toxic as anything Hillary has faced since … Vince Foster.”
The analogy is a strong and a factual one. But in trying to understand what’s happening today with the ceaseless, two-year Benghazi propaganda campaign, a blitz that’s utterly lacking in factual support, it’s important to understand how the media game has changed between the Vince Foster era and today. Specifically, it’s important to understand what’s different and more dangerous about the elaborate and irresponsible gotcha games that Republicans now play in concert with the right-wing media. (Hint: The games today get way more coverage.)
Here’s what’s key: Twenty years ago the far-right Foster tale was told mostly from the fringes. Word was spread via emerging online bulletin boards, snail mail pamphlets, faxed newsletters, self-published exposes, and VCR tapes, like “The Clinton Chronicles,” which portrayed the president as a one-man crime syndicate involved in drug-running, prostitution, murder, adultery, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, just to name a few.
At the top of the Foster-feeding pyramid stood the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show (“Vince Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton”), and Robert Bartley’s team of writers at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, who spent eight years lost in a dense, Clinton-thick fog.
Notice the hole in that ‘90s media menu? Television. Specifically, 24-hour television.
Now, fast-forward to the never-ending Benghazi feast of outrage. Today, that far-right tale is amplified via every single conservative media outlet in existence, and is powered by the most-watched 24-hour cable news channel in America. A news channel that long ago threw away any semblance of accountability.
So yes, Fox News is what’s changed between 1994 and 2014, and Fox News is what has elevated Benghazi from a fringe-type “scandal” into the pressing issue adopted by the Republican Party today. (“Benghazi” has been mentioned approximately 1,000 times on Fox since May 1, according to TVeyes.com)
Remember, Rupert Murdoch’s all-news channel didn’t debut in America until October 1996 when it launched with just 17 million subscribers. (Today it boasts 90 millions subs.) And for the first few years it generally delivered a conservative slant on the news. It didn’t function as a hothouse of fabrications the way it does today.
Now, Fox acts as a crucial bridge between the radical and the everyday. Fox gives a voice and a national platform to the same type of deranged, hard-core haters who hounded the new, young Democratic president in the early 1990s. Fox embraces and helps legitimize the kind of conspiratorial talk that flourished back then but mostly on the sidelines. The Murdoch channel has moved derangement into the mainstream of Republican politics.
By making the Foster comparison, I’m not downplaying how Republicans and the president’s dedicated detractors irresponsibly flogged the Foster story for years. It stood as one of the most rancid examples of the politics of personal destruction that defined the Clinton era. (The Foster family begged, to no avail, for an end to the use of “outrageous innuendo and speculation for political ends.”)
But given how vast the right-wing noise machine apparatus has expanded since the 1990s, I’m suggesting that if that same type of event unfolded under the current Democratic president and if Fox News decided to hype the story, regardless of facts, for ten, twenty, or thirty months, the scandal wouldn’t be treated as a fleeting affair. In other words, if Vince Foster truly were the ’90s equivalent of Benghazi, it would have received mountains of more media attention, from all corners.
Fact: During Clinton’s eight years in office, the New York Times published less than 30 news articles and columns that mentioned Foster at least three times, according to Nexis. By comparison, since the terror attack in Libya 20 months ago, the Times has published more than 250 hundred articles and columns that mentioned “Benghazi” three or more times.
That’s what happens when you add the mighty medium of television into the all-scandal mix. That kind of drumbeat of televised phony outrage forces and/or encourages Republican politicians to respond, as well as the mainstream media.
Meanwhile, how do we know Fox would’ve gone all in on the dark Foster story? Because in the mid-’90s Fox chief Roger Ailes, then programming CNBC, told Don Imus that Foster’s death could have been a murder. At the time, Ailes didn’t have the influence or the independence to unleash NBC-owned financial news channel on a reckless Vince Foster witch-hunt. But he certainly would have if he’d been running today’s hyper-partisan, hyper-irresponsible version of Fox News.
Also, even years after the ugly Foster smear campaign faded, Fox talkers like Sean Hannity push the lies:
- After suggesting Vince Foster was murdered, Hannity praised caller who accused Clinton of multiple rapes
- Discussing Foster, Hannity asked: “Did a close friend of Hillary Clinton commit suicide, or was it a massive coverup?”
- Hannity asserted that “Whitewater and the death of Vince Foster” are “chapters remaining open” for Sen. Clinton
In 2007, Fox News host Sean Hannity hosted a special episode on the “mysterious death” of Foster, hinting that the Clintons might have pulled off “a massive cover-up.”
So yes, I’m pretty sure today’s Fox News would have eagerly endorsed the sordid Foster affair, relentlessly demanding that “unanswered questions” be addressed and that sweeping investigations be launched. That in turn, would have forced Republicans into action, which would have sparked endless mainstream news coverage.
That’s what happens when televised propaganda is added to the media scandal mix; the megaphone’s much bigger, much louder, and in many ways much more dangerous.
By: Eric Boehlert, Senior Fellow, Media Matters, May 8, 2014
“Sexism Still Tolerated In A Way Racism Isn’t”: Why Clinton’s Gender Problem Will Not Be Like Obama’s Race Problem
Here’s an SAT analogy question for you: Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign IS TO race as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign IS TO _______. If you said “gender,” you’re only half right.
I’ll get to what I mean in a moment, but this is something Isaac Chotiner raises today at The New Republic: in 2016, we’ll get into a similar dynamic we see now, in which “the attacks on Clinton will be seen as sexist by liberals, which in turn will lead to conservatives feeling falsely accused of sexism. You can count on MSNBC, for example, to turn nearly every attack on Clinton into an attack on Republicans for hating women.”
It’s true that there will be an extraordinary amount of sexism directed at Clinton, just as there always has been. But unlike Barack Obama, who spent years planning how to make white people comfortable with his race (which worked for a while, until his victory became a real possibility), Clinton has never tried to make her gender unthreatening. I suppose we could mention the way she stepped back from policy and did more traditional First Lady stuff after the Clinton health care plan failed in 1994, but that was a brief interregnum between times when she in effect told the country that she was going to be just as smart and knowledgeable and ambitious as a man in her position, and if they didn’t like that, then it was their problem and not hers.
The other thing that’s different is the way people, and particularly conservatives, talk about gender versus the way they talk about race. To put it simply, a lot of conservatives are still unashamedly sexist. When MSNBC calls out Rush Limbaugh for saying something sexist about Clinton, he doesn’t try to convince people that it’s a calumnious charge and he is in fact deeply committed to gender equality. He doesn’t much care, and neither do a lot of other people.
To what degree that ends up working in Clinton’s favor politically, we’ll have to see. Race both helped and hurt Obama (researchers are still sorting through which way the scales tipped on net), and on first blush something similar is likely to happen with Clinton: there will be people who won’t vote for a woman, and there will be people excited about voting for the first woman president. There will also be women who are so disgusted by the misogynistic attacks on her that it pushes them toward voting for her.
But there is going to be absolutely no subtlety in the sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton, and the people making them will barely attempt to argue that they aren’t being sexist. Instead of “How dare you call me that!” their response to the accusation will be more along the lines of, “Shut yer trap, girlie!”
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 9, 2014
All the way back in 1946, with Nazi Germany defeated and the cold war commencing, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay on James Burnham. The author of The Managerial Revolution and a leading political philosopher, Burnham was a frequent contributor to the young National Review, and, more broadly, a leading voice of postwar American conservatism.
What Orwell found in his analysis of Burnham was that this ostensible democrat and cold warrior held deep regard for–and even envied–authoritarian or totalitarian powers, including Stalin’s Russia. This is why, Orwell explained, Burnham originally predicted a Nazi victory in World War II. (Britain, typically, was considered “decadent.”) In later years, Orwell continued, Burnham would write about Stalin in “semi-mystical” terms (with a “fascinated admiration”), comparing him to heroes of the past; Burnham didn’t like Stalin’s politics, but he admired his strength. Of Burnham’s odd quasi-regard for Stalinism and its supposedly destined victory over the forces of sickly democratic regimes, Orwell added: “The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or, if established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society.”
Orwell, then, was not merely critical of Burnham’s pessimism (Orwell himself could be overly pessimistic.) He also saw this pessimism as reflective of a mindset that prioritized vicious power-wielding and coercion over other things that allowed states to succeed and prosper.
This variety of pessimism did not end with Burnham, unfortunately. During the nearly 50 year Cold War, Americans were informed time and again by rightwingers that the Soviet Union did not allow dissent, and could therefore pursue its desired policies without protest. While the Soviets were single-minded, we were, yes, decadent. Soviet leaders could fight wars as they pleased, but freedom-loving presidents like Ronald Reagan had to put up with what Charles Krauthammer laughably called an “imperial Congress.” (Some of the same type of commentary shows up about today’s China: look how quickly the Chinese can build bridges! And, as Thomas Friedman proves, it isn’t coming solely from the right.) But more unique among conservatives is the desire for a tough leader who will dispense with niceties and embrace power.
The reason for all this ancient history is the situation today in Ukraine, where an autocratic Russian leader who exudes manly vibes has ordered his armed forces into Crimea. It is unclear whether this move on Russia’s part will prove successful, but, amidst uncertaintly among western leaders over what to do, there has arisen a new strain of the Burnham syndrome. Conservatives don’t just see the west and President Obama as weak; they also seem envious of Putin’s bullying. “There is something odd,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in New York magazine, “about commentators who denounce Putin in the strongest terms and yet pine for a more Putin-like figure in the White House.”
Sarah Palin, for example, said this last night to Sean Hannity:
Well, yes, especially under the commander-in-chief that we have today because Obama’s — the perception of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness. And you know, look, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates. We are not exercising that peace through strength that only can be brought to you courtesy of the red, white and blue, that only a strengthened United States military can do.
Put aside the syntax for a moment and ask: is there not a bit of envy here? Isn’t Palin very clearly desirous of a tough-guy president who wrestles bears and drills for oil? (The swooning over Bush’s landing on that aircraft carrier was a telling sign.) Now read Rush Limbaugh:
In fact, Putin—ready for this?—postponed the Oscar telecast last night. He didn’t want his own population distracted. He wanted his own population knowing full well what he was doing, and he wanted them celebrating him. They weren’t distracted. We were.
If only America wasn’t distracted by silly things like the Oscars, perhaps we would have the strength to stand up to the tough Russia. (On his web page, Limbaugh has a photo of a shirtless Putin.) In case the point isn’t obvious enough, Limbaugh continues:
Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama’s sleeves were rolled up? That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hard—I mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.
Limbaugh quite clearly wants this kind of leader.
Also on view over the past few days is the idea that Putin must be smarter and cagier and stronger: “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The Russians are thus necessarily craftier than our weak and vacillating (key word) democratic leader.
The silliness inherent in all this talk is that when American presidents have generally acted above the law, or engaged in stupid and immoral wars, or bullied neighbors, or cracked down on domestic dissent, it has backfired in the worst ways on them and the country. (The examples are too obvious to list.) Moreover, I notice that conservatives seem to view some of Obama’s domestic actions–appointing czars, for example–as being the result of a vindictive, bloodthirsty, and authoritarian mindset. However absurd the particular claims may be (Cass Sunstein as Stalin), it is proof that the people who seem to secretly pine for an American Putin don’t really want one.
Orwell’s response to this sort of thinking was to write, of Burnham, “He ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country.” Of course this is not a guarantee that this crisis will play itself out in a way that is beneficial to American or Western (or Ukrainian) interests. But the presumption that Russia has just masterly played the Great Game, and that our weakness will doom us, is nearly automatic among large segments of the American right. (Olga Dukhnich, in The New York Times, makes the point that this crisis may backfire just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did. Whether correct or not, it is a nice counter to the reigning right-wing ultra-pessimism.)
Orwell closed his essay as follows:
That a man of Burnham’s gifts should have been able for a while to think of Nazism as something rather admirable, something that could and probably would build up a workable and durable social order, shows what damage is done to the sense of reality by the cultivation of what is now called ‘realism’.
It is now Team Obama that styles itself realist, in quite a different way than Orwell was talking about. And large chunks of the American right would now also scorn the term. What they haven’t scorned is the mindset, which is the problem in the first place.
By: Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, March 4, 2014