The Presidency is still intact; the capital is safe; the empire has held off the opposition rebels. What is to be made of one of the stranger episodes in US history, namely how an opposition party was able to shut down the government over a policy in which they lost their case in the legislature, to the electorate, and the Supreme Court? The roots of the crisis go deeper than opposition to healthcare reform or President Obama the individual. The fear of healthcare reform is about a fear of government. The fear of government is driven by the defining characteristic of US politics: racism.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is an incomplete attempt to institute the missing component of the New Deal providing social insurance for over-65s through pensions and universal healthcare. Social Security and Medicare, like unions, are institutions which give meaning and identity. The ‘New Deal’ coalition was built on the power of these institutions, before breaking apart in the 1970’s. The attacks on Medicare and Social Security in recent years attempt to weaken the power and meaning they hold, namely the millions of people they organise behind a set of ‘progressive’ interests. The US ‘left’ so often tacks to the right because they assume that they will appear as the sensible moderates. The right does not assume there is a finite amount of political capital – they believe destroying institutions like Social Security and Medicare will generate more political capital and resources and shift the ‘centre’ further to the right. The right fears the ACA became an essential ‘institution’, an example of something the citizenry ‘expects’.
The ultimate fear is a ‘single-payer’ system similar to the NHS in the UK. It is known as the closest thing the British have to a national religion. There is no evidence private insurance ensures quick treatment in the US. The true waiting times in a decentralised healthcare system that leaves many patients waiting for years on condition of pay are not measured, while the UK system accounts for waiting times from the moment a specialist refers a patient (thus inflating the true waiting time). The effect of an NHS, or Medicare-for-all in the US, would be revolutionary. With employers no longer expected to provide coverage, up to 2.6 million jobs, over $300 billion in business revenues and $100 billion in increased wages could be created. The deficit would be reduced as would the majority of bankruptcies. The effect on the US psyche would be bigger. By having more disposable income and greater job security – and healthcare no longer the main employer benefit – workers would have more power in relation to their employers. With the deficit reduced and possibly eliminated over time, the pressure to slash government spending would be significantly less. Overhauling this system would drift the political centre too far left for the Republicans as they currently exist.
The Republican fear of the federal government is the potential it has to break not just corporate power, but racial and social orders as well. Beginning with the Democrats’ New Deal, opposition to the provision of welfare became bound with opposition to civil rights. The New Deal broke the Southern stranglehold on racial politics. The black vote became a swing constituency, having been allied to the Republican ‘Party of Lincoln’ who ended slavery and provided limited protection against the Southern Democratic ‘Party of the Klan’. Discrimination in Social Security, employment, and housing persisted, but the New Deal opened up the possibility of multiracial working-class coalitions. Socialist union leaders like A. Phillip Randolph brought left-wing economics to the civil rights movement, and union organising and civil rights became bound. The Republican’s business conservatism became allied to a racial conservatism, and opposition to the federal government became a way of securing beneficial terms for white middle-class people, namely vouchers for private, overwhelmingly white schools, or highway funding that encouraged overwhelmingly white suburbs. The opposition in the current budget negotiations to food stamps and Head Start funding is rooted in the same fear of civil rights, that even limited resources going towards poorer people of colour will break the control of racial and business conservatism.
The US right looks at the rest of the Americas and sees Marxists elected in Chile, a revolution in Cuba, and indigenous socialists holding power in Guatemala and Bolivia, and fears President Obama will inspire the same kind of coalitions – on some level they do genuinely believe the President is a socialist. It has often been argued that the Republicans use issues like affirmative action or abortion as a distraction from economic conservatism. The attacks on Roe vs. Wade and the Voting Rights Act in the last 2 years have shown how bound business and social conservatism are for the US right. The attempts to deny employer coverage of contraception reveal the visceral fear of self-identified women controlling their own bodies. The fear is abortion rights gives self-identified women too much economic security, and necessitates public healthcare funding. On immigration and gay marriage (though not LGBTQ people’s material conditions), the right knows socially conservative viewpoints are losing and cannot be maintained. But the attempt to restrict voting protections for people of colour, and reproductive rights for women, is to break the potential of ‘new’ progressive coalitions. It’s why Shirley Sherrod and ACORN had to go.
To understand this deep-rooted fear is to recognise the implosion of the Grand Ol’ Party will not resolve the US’ problems. The Republicans are not a traditional parliamentary party, but US political debate is in no way typical either. It does not follow public opinion on the minimum wage or jobs. The system is bound up with the US right’s deepest fears as they attempt to maintain control over it. A Republican implosion is not enough to break political paralysis – it requires outside organising. Movements forming on a local level, such as pro-choice movements in the South, state level movements to break the relationship between money and elections, union efforts to organise immigrant and temporary workers, seen in the increased activity of Walmart, fast food, and domestic workers in the last year, are the clearest examples of the ‘new’ progressive coalitions the right fears.
The long-term trends indicate the ‘old’ South is increasingly urban, Latino, black, and left-wing, and restrictions on voting rights and gerrymandering districts can only hold this off for so long. Indeed the nationwide trends show the ‘Millennial’ generation is hugely to the left on economic issues, and is driving populist debate on issues like sick leave, minimum wage, universal childcare, and student loan debt. But these long-term trends will not change the system by itself let alone the Democratic Party. The only way the system and both major parties will shift is through outside pressure that channels the New Deal coalition and civil rights movement that brought about the last major party realignment.