Republicans seem to have come off the rails. They shut down the government in a temper tantrum over Obamacare, but that’s only the most visible part of it. Some Republicans are now blaming Obama for letting the government get shut down, while others, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, are calling Obamacare a criminal act. They scream about more and more, and they seem madder and madder. What accounts for this nearly unhinged rage?
I think the only way to understand this rage is to know a bit of the history of conservatism. The basis of conservatism is a desire for stability and a skepticism of change. It’s right there in the name, they want to “conserve” things. Conservatism as a distinct political philosophy was born out of Edmund Burke’s horror at the bizarre turn of events of the French Revolution. What began as a movement for liberty, equality, and fraternity, descended into a chaotic bloodbath. Conservatives have been trying to stop, or at least slow, changes in society ever since. But more often than not they’ve failed.
Most of the changes that conservatives have opposed over the years have been proposed by, championed by, and driven by liberals. This includes such major movements toward liberty as the abolition of slavery, the expansion of women’s rights through suffrage, and the civil rights movement, but includes thousands of minor policies. At each step conservatives tried to stop change, but more often than not liberals won.
In this country, particularly from the 1930’s to the 1980’s and the election of Ronald Reagan, conservatives fought a losing battle. Conservatives fought, and lost, the battles over welfare, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, the voting rights act, affirmative action, and a broad range of government regulation of the economy, from workplace safety regulation to environmental protection. In each fight the conservative argument has been remarkably consistent: these changes will not just alter a legal issue, but will also change the nature of society. From the beginning, ever since Burke, conservatives have seen their fight as not solely political or economic, but primarily social and cultural. They believe that certain economic conditions and government policies are essential to the maintenance and preservation of a successful culture.
The election of Reagan seemed to indicate a turning point in the long and futile battle against the advances of liberalism. Finally a true conservative had won nationwide. But while Reagan’s victory was a political success, it didn’t turn the tide on the culture. Conservatives tried to engage on cultural issues – spawning the “culture wars” – but this was futile. It quickly became obvious that, despite their political gains, conservatives were losing the culture.
But they had to keep fighting because they were fighting (in their minds at least) for the soul of America. So every battle, regardless of how trivial, had to be engaged. They won many political battles (elections of Presidents, appointments of conservative Justices, gains in the Senate, control of the House in 1994), and most economic battles (widespread deregulation and ascendency of their small government and anti-tax ethos), but none of those victories produced the social restoration they envisioned. To top it all off, the culture continued to degrade. And since political and economic victories were not producing the cultural revival they envisioned, they grew increasingly frustrated.
To a very real extend conservatives have been on a five hundred year losing streak. For five hundred years, traditions, norms, and social institutions have been eroded, chipped away, and fallen. Modern conservatives may dispute this history, but they feel the loss in their bones. And this deep seated sense of loss creates a frustration that permeates their approach to politics.
Because they are fighting to preserve the culture, and because they are not succeeding, each battle, political, economic or cultural, becomes more important. For conservatives, each battle is a rear-guard action. With each loss they give more ground. Take, as one example, the fight in the 1990’s over expanding the opportunities for women in the military. They lost that fight, and then they had to try to stop gays from serving openly in the military. They were able to stop that advance, at least temporarily in the 1990’s, with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But then, some twenty years later, that prohibition fell. Now the Pentagon is planning to open most combat roles to women. For conservatives this steady erosion of their values has been played out in most every public policy issue, from civil rights to business and environmental regulation. They have learned that if they give ground once, they will be constantly pushed back.
With each loss, conservatives lose something they once held dear; with each loss a social or cultural norm is forever abandoned. They know that if they lose any fight it only means that they will be pushed back even further, and will have to fight again deeper in their own territory. And so every fight is critical, and must be engaged at all costs. They also know that no issue is too trivial to ignore. Every issue is the tip of the iceberg, evidence of bigger things yet to come. Every liberal proposal is the camel’s nose under the tent flap. Conservatives know that many liberal policies start out in academia, then fall blithely from a politicians lips, then gain a constituency and eventually become a piece of legislation. And the history of the last century has been the history of repeated conservative inability to stop the liberal advance. If you doubt me, think about how gay rights have advanced in the last twenty years.
For many conservatives the election of Barack Obama was the last straw. They would’ve been outraged by the election of any Democrat, since it indicated that the conservative tide (which began with the election of Reagan and crested with the election of George W. Bush) had crested and was beginning to recede. But to them Obama isn’t just any Democrat. He embodies many of the government programs that they loathed, including Civil Rights, Affirmative Action, Welfare, and government backed student loans, to name a few. But he also embodies new cultural norms they disdained: he’s urban, mixed race, academic, raised by a single mother, culturally aware, and sort of hip. He’s the face of a changing society. He’s the face of the changes that conservatives have fought against for nearly a century.
Obama represents everything conservatives oppose, and so his proposals – for anything – are anathema. And then he proposed a government reform of the American health care system. This was too much. Conservatives have fought against government involvement in medicine since the 1930’s. Ronald Reagan made the transition from actor to politician based in part on his lecture tour warning about the evils of socialized medicine. Reagan said that “one of the traditional methods of imposing … socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project, most people are a little reluctant to oppose anything that suggests medical care for people who possibly can’t afford it.” But this is just the “foot in the door” and eventually “your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him.” And in issue after issue over the last century, conservatives see what happens when liberals get a foot in the door.
The battle over Obamacare is existential. It’s a fight that must be won at all costs. Opposition to “socialized medicine” is not some minor cultural issue, but an issue central to the conservative worldview. And so they are willing to do whatever it takes, shut down the government, destroy the nation’s credit rating, harm the nation’s economy, to stop it. They must stop it all costs because they believe that the harm in letting it pass is far far worse. It is the culmination of their worst fears, it indicates that they have indeed lost the final battle.