Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Soviets' Revenge

Even though I was on an extended blogging hiatus, I’ve kept an eye on the news as closely as ever. Out of everything that’s happened over the past year, what bothers me most is America’s complete inability to fix its growing problems. On issues as wide-ranging as healthcare reform, energy independence, sustainability, and financial reform, we have frighteningly huge problems staring us in the face. I don’t blame Obama, and I’ve been generally pleased with his performance. He’s curtailed the power of his office from the severe overreach of his predecessor, focusing on his constitutionally mandated task of enforcing laws and being generally constructive on foreign policy. All in all, it’s what I voted for. Unfortunately, this retraction of executive power means the legislative branch has the burden of reform. But even with 60 Democrats, the Senate has struggled to pass any substantial legislation this year beyond the economic stimulus and the Senate version of the healthcare bill—and even that had to be severely watered down with tax cuts just to garner enough votes. In many ways, it seems clear the United States federal government has fast become ungovernable.

I’ve contemplated the reasons behind this for a while. And while hyper-partisanship and Republicans becoming too wrapped up in their own ideology are certainly contributing factors, they’re only symptoms. The root cause goes far deeper, but it’s easy to find in the rhetoric of those who oppose any effort to fix things.
The best illustration of this rhetoric comes from the issue the American political world has revolved around for the past few months: healthcare reform. Throughout the process, Republicans have refused to even discuss ideas for reform, instead labeling anything and everything as “socialism”, “communism”, or even “fascism”. Sadly, the Teabaggers seem to believe this nonsense and have no idea what “socialism” actually means. It’s not Marxism, and it sure as hell isn’t Nazism. Regardless, Republicans have no choice but to resist reform to have any chance of being reelected by their increasingly reactionary base.

Fearing communism I understand, particularly of the Marxist variety. But why the angst over socialism? It exists in varying forms throughout the world, and the vast majority of those countries are no less respectful of individual freedom than the US. In fact, there’s little correlation between the two. And how does providing even a public option constitute a complete loss of individual freedom? Many argue that it would result of rationing of healthcare. Well yes, but rationing has to happen at some point. To have no rationing would require infinite money. Unfortunately, we have to deal reality, so there has to be some decision making process to determine where to allocate limited resources. In the US, it’s the health insurance companies making those decisions. However, those companies also need to look after their profits, which means resources have to be devoted to insurance companies’ bottom lines rather than towards the health of their customers. At least a government entity would not be profit driven, and would have some accountability to the voters through their representatives. I digress, but it’s important to show how there is no real loss in individual freedom. We just transfer the rationing to a more accountable entity. Nevertheless, this basic fact seems irrelevant to conservatives who continue to recoil instinctively to the idea of socialism, no matter how weak. The question remains, why?

I would suggest it’s because many Americans are still living in the shadow of the Cold War. In the first part of the 20th Century, the US was able to institute a number of socialist reforms including labor laws and Social Security, many of which were models for the rest of the world to follow. However, after World War II, we fell behind when the Soviet threat emerged. It seems Americans felt they had to embrace unbridled capitalism just to prove the communists wrong. Plus, any government action became suspect because it was “socialist”, and that’s what communists do. Can’t have any of that now can we? This seems to be a recurring theme in human history. To show our superiority over our enemies, we embrace that which makes us different wholeheartedly. This also happened with religion in the US throughout the Cold War. In the 50s, belief was overwhelmingly Christian, yes, but was mostly relegated to private. However, the rigid atheism of Marxism led the US government to highlight our nation’s overall religiosity (much to the detriment of those who aren’t religious, I might add). “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and “In God We Trust” became the official motto of the US over the de facto “E Pluribus Unum” in 1956. Then the Religious Right’s entered politics in the 1980s literally demanding Conservative Christianity be at the forefront of all activity, public and private.

The only lessening of this trend came in the 60s when the Counter Cultural Revolution provided a brief window to pass the last major socialist programs in the US. But that window quickly disappeared with Nixon’s rise to power. For the rest of the century, America doubled down on its differentness from the USSR. Now, that enemy has been gone for over 20 years, but the rhetoric remains. So here we are unable to fix America’s domestic problems even though the liberal political party has its largest supermajority in decades. We have plenty of examples of successful programs in other countries which would solve our problems, but conservatives cannot escape the battles of the Cold War and continue to rely on 50 year old arguments for why America is perfect and trying to change is evil and communist. The Soviet Union might be gone, but their crippling effect on our national discourse might just carry America with it. I hate to be a pessimist, but it seems like reform will be nearly impossible until the Cold Warriors are no longer in a position of power. Maybe then we can stop being haunted by foes long gone and deal with the problems we put off for half a century.

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