I was in and out last week, and this week will be the same. I did want to comment briefly on the current health care "debate." It's depressing that some people think other people (or even themselves) going to the doctor will destroy the country. All this foreign usurper stuff is undoubtedly related to the current protesters against health care, and I seriously doubt that they'd be up in arms if Bush were pushing for the same sort of moderate health care reforms Obama's pushing for.
But the title refers to more than Obama's skin color. No, the reason Truman wasn't able to get universal health care was because, fundamentally, poor and working class conservatives, especially Southerners, oppose social services because they think undeserving black people will get them. Slavery, especially post-Enlightenment, was a system that required a fundamental disavowal of the value of certain humans (and autonomy, democracy, and humanity themselves) in order to work. Several centuries of it caused the basic ways we see the world to change. It created a breed of people who identify more with the interests of rich people than other poor people. It's Pavlovian in that most of these folks don't even know enough to know why they're protesting against health care, but they know the people they trust to tell them what's right are saying this will kill grandma and destroy America, so they pull out their guns and head down to a town hall. It's not about different reasoning or values or experiences.
As Nathan Glazer put it:
"Racial fragmentation and the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities among the poor played a major role in limiting redistribution.... Our bottom line is that Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution. In fact the political system is likely to be endogenous to these basic American beliefs."(p. 61) "Endogenous" is economics-ese for saying we have the political system we do because we prefer the results it gives, such as limiting redistribution to the blacks.
Thus the racial factor as well as a wider net of social beliefs play a key role in why Americans don't care about income inequality, and why, not caring, they have no great interest in expanding the welfare state. Does this conclusion hold up?
I believe in large measure that it does. It parallels the conclusions of political scientists and sociologists who have been studying this question for 20 years or more, and indeed it parallels with only small differences the reasons I gave 15 years ago for why the American wlfare state is different. I would modify their conclusion in two key respects. I believe the specific racial factor that emerges so sharply in their regressions has to be embedded in a larger structure of opinion shaped by the history of American diversity, in religion, in ethnicity, and in race, and it is this larger structure that is the key factor in shaping the American welfare state. It has shaped it in such a distinctive pattern that, as I argued more than 15 years ago, it is not to be seen as laggard, or backward,
but rather different.
The entire article is worth the read, and it's something to keep in mind when the tea-baggers start to talk about Obama's birth certificate.
It's interesting that they're not even making the most basic argument against social welfare programs that we've heard 1000 times before: that X program will increase taxes on the wealthy and they'll all either stop working or leave the country. Yes, a few of them are saying that, and "going Galt" was a phase that lasted about a week a half a year ago, but what they're really saying when they oppose health care reform is that it's just not something that they can support because it's not America, it's not their people asking for it, it's just not right. And so they flail around and buy whatever conspiracy theory presents itself, since one of the wrong people is proposing the idea and, therefore, it must be terrible.
I have to say, this is the probably the most concrete and destructive ways I've seen "racism hurts everyone" play out. I know this explanation isn't 100% of what's going on, but I can't help but look at people protesting against health care and think that we're suffering from some sort of deep cultural sickness. It's pretty rare for a person to act against his or her own self-preservation.