Yesterday’s simultaneous Obamacare exchange opening and federal government shutdown may seem unprecedented, but it continues a century-old pattern of Rich People’s Movements. (More)

Rich People’s Movements, Part I: Health Care vs. Wealth Care

This week Morning Feature looks at Isaac Martin’s Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent. Today we begin with the most current such movement, the Tea Party and the Republican battle to dismantle the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Tomorrow we’ll look back a century to what the far right call “the revolution of 1913,” the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. Friday we’ll see the birth of Rich People’s Movements between the two world wars. Saturday we’ll conclude with how the John Birch Society took over the post-war Rich People’s Movements and gave us the Tea Party.

Isaac Martin is a professor in the Department of Sociology and the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of California, San Diego. In addition to Rich People’s Movements, Dr. Martin is the author of The Permanent Tax Revolt and a co-editor of the books The New Fiscal Sociology and After the Tax Revolt: California’s Proposition 13 Turns 30. He has published articles about social movements and public policy in the American Journal of Sociology, Law and Society Review, Journal of Policy History, Socio-Economic Review, and Urban Affairs Review, among other journals.

“The intrusion into a God-given American freedom called Obamacare”

On Monday night, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart aptly – if unintentionally – captured progressives’ inability to comprehend the Tea Party and the Republicans’ obsession with dismantling the Affordable Care Act:

JON STEWART: For those just joining the story, our government is going to shut down in 57 of your earth minutes. Because the House Republicans are refusing to fund the government, unless the rest of Congress delays implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Also known as the end of America as we know it, for reasons no one is able to clearly explain.

He then shows several clips where House Republicans offer explanations:

MARLIN STUTZMAN (R-IN): This country was founded on limited government, personal responsibility, and consent of the governed, but Obamacare is based on limitless government.

CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS (R-WA): We are leading on protecting hardworking Americans across this country that are feeling the overreach from the federal government.

STEVE KING (R-IA): I come to the floor as many of us do to speak about the intrusion into a God-given American freedom called Obamacare. It is an unconstitutional taking of God-given American liberty.

Stewart then mocks these statements as “just throwing words together” and “random patriotic buzz wordees.”

“That’s it”

Stewart is a comedian and mocking politicians is his art form, but the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein was similarly incredulous in a column on Monday:

This is all about stopping a law that increases taxes on rich people and reduces subsidies to private insurers in Medicare in order to help low-income Americans buy health insurance. That’s it. That’s why the Republican Party might shut down the government and default on the debt.

Klein’s premise – implicit in the sentence “That’s it” – is that the Obamacare debate was settled in the 2012 election, and details of implementation should be worked out in the ordinary course of legislative business.

Polls show that most Americans agree. Whatever their uncertainty and unease about the ACA, only small minorities support a government shutdown (22%) or a default on the federal debt (27%) as ways to stop Obamacare. Most Americans think Congress should “make it work as well as possible,” even among those who don’t like the law.

“A ‘major’ threat”

While Stewart, Klein, and most Americans find the Tea Party rhetoric baffling, we need to recognize that the House Republicans quoted above were speaking to and for their party’s conservative base, as a January Pew Research poll revealed:

As Barack Obama begins his second term in office, trust in the federal government remains mired near a historic low, while frustration with government remains high. And for the first time, a majority of the public says that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms.
[…]
The growing view that the federal government threatens personal rights and freedoms has been led by conservative Republicans. Currently 76% of conservative Republicans say that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms and 54% describe the government as a “major” threat. Three years ago, 62% of conservative Republicans said the government was a threat to their freedom; 47% said it was a major threat.

That poll was taken in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, and the 5-point rise among Independents who felt threatened by government matched the 5-point rise among gun owners who felt threatened. But the numbers of Independents (33%) and gun owners (38%) who saw government as a “major” threat were unchanged since 2010. Indeed the only group who increasingly felt a “major” threat from government was … conservative Republicans. That is, the Tea Party.

“The place in the conservative psyche once occupied by communism”

To understand that – and the House Republicans’ arguments about “limitless government” and “overreach” versus “God-given American liberty” – we must recognize that the Tea Party is not a new phenomenon. It is simply the latest expression of a century-old tradition of what Dr. Martin calls “rich people’s movements.” These are genuine grassroots social movements whose primary aims have always been to safeguard the wealth of the wealthy or, if possible, to make the rich even richer. But while intended to benefit the richest 1-3%, these movements have always sought and usually found ways to appeal to others.

Consider this excerpt from Jonathan Chait’s outstanding New York Magazine article titled “The Republican Plot to Kill Obamacare,” which is worth reading in full:

These recriminations [against Republican leaders] reprise the hallucinatory attacks by Cold War conservatives like Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society, which over time migrated from their original targets onto such figures as President Eisenhower and the Army.

The historical echo is fitting in the sense that Obamacare has come to fill the place in the conservative psyche once occupied by communism and later by taxes: the main point of doctrinal agreement. (In constituent meetings, “this is the overriding issue that is being discussed,” one Republican member of Congress explained late last month. “Way more than immigration, way more than the debt.”) The transformation of Obamacare from a close relative of Republicans’ own health-care ideas to the locus of evil in modern life is owing to several things[.]

Most important, the law has, in its direct impact, opened a fissure over the role of government deeper than any since the New Deal. Obamacare threatens America’s unique status among advanced economies as a country where access to regular medical care is a privilege that generally must be earned.

The Tea Party is not merely an “historical echo” of the John Birch Society. It is, as we’ll see Saturday, the most recent incarnation of that group: complete with breathless warnings about “socialism” and conspiracy theories that portray President Obama as an agent of foreign evildoers. Indeed one of the founding members of the John Birch Society was Fred Koch, whose sons Charles and David funded the right wing groups that promoted the Tea Party.

What progressives don’t understand is that – for conservative Republicans – the ACA is not about health care. It’s about women’s suffrage and bank profits, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Board, anti-profiteering taxes during World War II, school desegregation and school prayer, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the EPA and OSHA, grazing rights on public lands, and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust. It’s about a “runaway” federal government that has – since the early 20th century, to varying degrees, in varying ways – sought to limit the power and privilege of the powerful and the privileged.

When progressives talk about the Affordable Care Act, we speak the language of “health care.” When conservatives talk about it, they speak the language of “wealth care,” a language of, by, and for activists in “rich people’s movements.” For them, the opening of the federal exchanges yesterday really was “the end of America as we know it,” for reasons they can explain … to each other.

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Happy Wednesday!