Only a few of those politicians are genuine ideologues. Most are just posing as ideologues — they’re really demagogues. They prey upon voters who are the most vulnerable, easily led and easily misled.
I first stumbled upon this political reality as a neophyte journalist covering the presidential campaign of 1968. Alabama’s infamous segregationist, Gov. George Wallace, who just five years earlier had tried to block the University of Alabama’s integration by standing in the schoolhouse door until federal troops forced him aside, had just jumped into the race as a third-party candidate against Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon. Wallace took his campaign up north and, at a Detroit rally, I started interviewing locals who were cheering Wallace’s antigovernment lines. (Such as these about federal bureaucrats: “They are pointy-headed intellectuals who can’t even park a bicycle straight,” and you know what they carry in their briefcases? “Ain’t nothin’ but peanut-butter sandwiches.”)
And when I asked these laughing, clapping Northerners whom they’d wanted for president before Wallace got into the race, I was blown away by the answer many gave: Bobby Kennedy. Yes, the presidential candidate who had just been assassinated that June, who seemed, in every way, Wallace’s political polar opposite — who was the U.S. attorney general who’d sent those troops to escort the University of Alabama’s first black students past the segregationist governor in the doorway.
Why Kennedy and then Wallace? “Because they both are speaking to people like me,” one man, a blue-collar factory worker, explained. It was my first and best lesson in how politics really works. And I’ve thought of Wallace’s old-time demagogic skill as I’ve watched our 21st-century demagogues successfully demonize President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”
Some of the demagogues are Tea Party-movement Republicans; others are Republican leaders fearful of being challenged on the right by Tea Party folks. They love to proclaim themselves conservative ideologues — even though they aren’t thinking ideologically, just politically. What they really want is to wreck Obama’s presidency and recapture the White House, even if it means also wrecking our fragile economic recovery. But they know, as Wallace knew, that good people can become so fed up that they can be manipulated by others preying on their worst fears. Like telling them Obamacare is a socialist thing, forced on us by big-government lefties who are making everyone buy health insurance.
Those of you who love to hate Obamacare will especially want to check out its origins. It was a plan titled “A National Health System,” and here’s the key passage: “Element #1: Every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health-care plan to cover major health-care costs. ... Under this arrangement, all households would be required to protect themselves from major medical costs by purchasing health insurance or enrolling in a prepaid health plan.” The blueprint called for government to “devise a market-based system guaranteeing access to care” and even “state-managed systems.”
But it wasn’t a communist-socialist plan; it was the proud ideological work of the impeccably conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, devised in 1989 as a conservative market-based alternative to the liberal single-payer effort by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass).
Next it became the conservative alternative to the Clinton White House’s unsuccessful effort to enact its so-called “Hillarycare,” embraced by congressional conservative leaders such Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Then it became the template for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s statewide health-insurance law. Obama’s advisers modeled their national health plan after the Romney/Heritage plans, including its mandate that everyone must have health insurance, and its market-based state health exchanges.
All the while, the Grand Old/Tea Party demagogues skillfully demonized Obamacare. So much so that many believe the Tea Party’s faux ideologues, who argue it is worth shutting down the government just to defund Obamacare.
Obamacare is flawed, overly complex and has troubling unintended consequences. It needs to be fixed. And it needs conservative input to make it work best for us all.
But what we all need — this week! — is an end to the right wing’s selfish demagoguery and a return to the selfless, patriotic, pro-America ideology that can help make Washington work for us all. At least, as well as it once did.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard.