Steve Benen notes a story about a Dallas woman with cancer who owes her life to an array of government programs—unemployment insurance, COBRA—yet still opposes the Affordable Care Act because she’s anti-government. This leads Steve to lament the success of unhinged Beckian rhetoric: “many of those who stand to benefit from a stronger safety net have been led to believe they want a weaker one.”
The story is actually half as worrying as Steve portrays it, but twice as strange. Scroll down in the original story and you get this:
When the severance benefits and other subsidies are gone, Amy said, the family might have to look – reluctantly – at some of the options contained in the new health care law.
“If I get to the point where we couldn’t afford to pay [for health insurance] maybe that would be a safety net,” she said. “But if they force you to pay and you can’t afford it, then you are back where you were.”
Note two things:
(1) This person is talking about a bill that’s mostly about subsidizing health insurance for working- to middle-class people so they can afford it (and avoid emergency-room induced bankruptcy), and blaming it for making her buy insurance she couldn’t afford. Fox News has sold a fair number people on the idea that the law contains mandates but no subsidies. But this is surely something that can be solved through education. Even the mainstream media can’t ignore this forever. It’s big, it isn’t subtle, and aside from pre-existing conditions, it’s the main point of the bill. If you’re unemployed* and uninsured, the government will pay for your insurance. If your income is up to 133 percent of the poverty level, you’ll get Medicaid. If it’s at 150 percent of the poverty level (roughly $33,000 a year for a family of four), your insurance premiums won’t be more than 3-4 percent of your income. If it’s as high as $88,000, four times poverty level, they’ll be no more than 9.5 percent. All this won’t kick in for a few years (nor will the mandate to buy insurance). But is that a reason to oppose it now?
I’m amazed that the point I’ve just put in bold hasn’t been made a selling point so far. But that won’t last forever. I’ll keep flogging it in this space if no one else will. (That’s a threat.)
(2) The woman in the story hates government programs, doesn’t think she’s using any government programs, yet would accept a government program if she had to. This merely confirms Arthur Schlesinger’s old dictum that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals [Update: he was citing Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril: see comments by Derek below]—except that things have become more radical. As Mnemosyne, one of Kevin’s commenters, notes, “most of these people seem to have convinced themselves that the government programs they’re taking advantage of are somehow not actually government programs.”
But this is a problem that solves itself, though in a way that will make liberals gnash our teeth in frustration. Once ACA becomes familiar, it will be popular, irrevocable—and unlikely to be perceived as the product of government. It will be added to the long list of government programs—public schools and universities, interstate highways, Social Security, Medicare, the military—that are politically impregnable because they no longer scan as government programs but rather as the background noise of everyday life. Government initiatives become popular in America not when people consciously value and affirm them but when people stop noticing them.
Denial is not the highest road to an adequate welfare state. But it’s a road. I’ll take it.
*or employed by a company that doesn’t provide health coverage—but that makes the slogan too long. Perhaps regrettably, I think security is a much better selling point than universal coverage. Most people think—insanely, but given our customs, very durably— that health insurance ought to be employer-based, and don’t like the idea that they’ll have jobs while government pays their insurance. But they’ll get used to the latter state too, once they have it.
Update: I guess I disagree with Jonathan (who was writing his post at the same time I was writing mine) on this. Maybe government support for the middle class is very popular—though I think it’s double-edged and must be sold deftly, since the U.S. middle class bristles at the idea that it needs government support. (Taking a subsidy is one thing. Admitting that one needs to is another.) But I’m willing to be persuaded. And if I am, I’ll strike “unemployed and” from the slogan above.