America’s iron curtain


Jason Reed

One of the biggest hoaxes of American history is that the Civil War ended back in 1865.  Unfortunately, it has not ended yet.  What was achieved back than was an armistice, similar to the situation in the Koreas.

As the current stalemate in the U.S. Congress makes plain, the Civil War is still very present in today’s America—and with virulence that most other civilized nations find as breathtaking as it is irresponsible.

The reasons why the Civil War was declared finished, according to the history books, is the military defeat of the South and its secessionist forces.  But can anyone seriously doubt that the same anti-Union spirit is still to be heard loud and clear in the halls of the U.S. Congress today?  It’s not just health care – rather, it is a cultural war.

There are plenty of U.S. commentators now who try to make light of the current situation in their country.  They argue that it is just a bunch of crazy Tea Party Republicans that are causing the current mayhem.  Such an interpretation underestimates the forces of history and the continuing deep divisions of American society.

The fight against Obamacare is cast by Republicans as fighting the authoritarian – and in the words of some conservative commentators, “fascist” (the irony of that word choice being found in their ideology) – views of the Obama Administration and what they label as the American left.  Meanwhile, in their own eyes, the Republicans are fighting the good fight of staking out the democratic and libertarian political high ground, all in the defense of “freedom.”  In reality, it is all in defense of their platform in which their constituents voted on.

What is going on in Washington today is a replay of the Kulturkampf, a period of German history that occurred in the 1870s.  At the time, that country’s modernizing forces resolved to fight back against the economically detrimental influence of conservative religious forces, mainly the Catholic Church.

Germany’s mid-19th century Catholic Church, a very powerful economic force at the time, fiercely resisted any suggestions of modernizing the social structures of society – just as many Republicans do now.  It sought to preserve the economic power of the well established, largely feudal-era interests, i.e., its own – just as many Republicans do now.

The fight in Washington thus is not about any of the things in the headlines, be it the budget, the debt or Obamacare.  These are merely proxies in a much more fundamental battle over the future structure of American society.  Democrats want those structures to be opened up, to create more economic rights to the underprivileged, so that the national economy can grow in the future.  To Republicans, any investment in these and other long-term causes is a net negative on what they see as their core mission – defending the interests of the people that put them in power.

Thus, we are largely dealing with a battle over redistributing shares of economic power, covered up in the clothing of cultural values.  That is why it is so bitterly fought.  To either side, the entire future of the country is at stake.  The proper way to understand the slavery issue as well as the health care law, therefore, is to see them as symbols of much deeper conflicts.

As it turns out, even the parallel developments in the legislative process are amazing.  Slavery was formally abolished in the United States in 1865 and, for a few years, in the period of Reconstruction, there seemed to be a will to move the country ahead.  But even back then, the intended key reform component was never really followed through.  That step was setting up a bank that would also get involved in granting freed slaves loans, so that they could build a prosperous future for themselves and their families.

The so-called Freedman’s Bureau met a fate similar to what today’s Republicans have in mind for the health care law, which they call “Obamacare.”  The Freedman’s Bureau lingered on for a few years, before it essentially faded away.  The economic, social and cultural consequences of condemning freed slaves essentially to a life of continued servitude, albeit of another kind, are well known.  They are the root cause of the culture of dependence that sadly continues to this day – and that today’s Republicans are quick to use as a justification not to do more for African-Americans.

The Affordable Health Care Act passed the U.S. Congress, just as the Freedman’s Bureau had been established in 1865.  With their countless defunding moves, the Republicans are pursuing a similar strategy, as was the case with the Freedman’s Bureau before.  In today’s case, they are trying to prevent that nationwide access to health care can truly become reality in the land.  Amazing how history repeats itself.

Of course, there is one very important distinction – and one that should truly make today’s Republicans squirm.  In the case of the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65, it was the Republicans, mostly found in the north at the time, who were the political forced aligned against slavery (President Lincoln was a Republican), while it was Southern Democrats who fiercely resisted its abolition, as well as resisting the Civil Right Act 100 years later.

In essence, now the South is once again rebelling against modernizing shifts of American society.  Today, in one of the great political realignments of modern politics, that region is the power base of Republicans.

The equivalent of politically and economically freeing the slaves back then is now granting health care access to all Americans.  In either case, the old order is about to be toppled and that leads especially Southerners and white conservatives everywhere to fear for the end of the United States, as they know it.

Back then, they felt the abolition of slavery and the economic independence of blacks had to be prevented at all costs because the Southern state economies and their leaders’ personal wealth depended on slavery and the economic suppression of the ultimate underclass.

Now, the move by Obama to declare that the state plays in securing that all Americans are under the umbrella of health insurance plays the role of the secessionist cause.

There is one more big irony to be pointed out in a historic context: it would be a great injustice to conservatives anywhere on the planet to agree with U.S. Republicans that opposing health insurance coverage for the entire population is conservative in any sense of the word.

One of the world’s greatest archconservatives, the then German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, introduced health coverage for all Germans as far back as 1883.  What is it about U.S. “conservatives” that, by 2013, they cannot muster the same degree of enlightenment as Bismarck?

The present state of affairs runs amazingly counter to America’s global ideology.  According to its self-promotion, the United States casts itself as the modernizing vanguard of humanity.  In light of what’s going on in Washington today, it is evident that close to half of the U.S. Congress wants an America that is more conservative Bismarck’s 1880s Germany.

Modern day Conservatives are attempting to corner house Democrats into a “heads I win; tails you lose” situation.  They are offering negotiation, the likes of which being nothing but gutting the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s biggest piece of legislation passed during his incumbency.  If this is going to be a “negotiation,” Democrats should play offense with a list of their own demands.

Many progressives pushed hard for a system that would ensure universal access to health care, often called a public option and frequently accomplished through making Medicare available to all. That got stripped from the bill that became the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans want to make the fight about healthcare, progressives can suggest tinkering with Obamacare—by instituting a public option. This wouldn’t just make sure that everyone has access to healthcare—including those currently being left out by red states that refuse to expand Medicaid—it would also help control spending on healthcare. Medicare’s administrative costs are two percent of its spending, compared to 14 percent in the private industry. Its spending growth increased at a rate about one percentage point lower than private insurance from 1970 to 2002.

If this isn’t possible, then Obama should at least not concede on the issue.  Doing so would set a dangerous precedent for how Congress is able to negotiate.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Parkway School District.