The wonderful people who brought you the invasion of Iraq certainly took Joseph Goebbels’ principle of “the bigger the lie the better” to heart.
The Republican right has been telling quite astonishing whoppers about Barack Obama’s proposal to introduce a public insurance scheme to ensure that all Americans have access to healthcare.
The most bizarre of the notorious attacks on the NHS – dating from a couple of years ago – is a Fox News interview with a neoconservative called Jerry Bowyer under the headline, “National Healthcare: Breeding Ground for Terror?”
Bowyer used the trial of the group who attacked Glasgow airport, some of who were doctors, to argue that doctors are civil servants in Britain and so no one wants to be one. This means that the NHS has to import them, particularly from Muslim countries, and state health systems are too bureaucratic to spot which Muslim doctors are jihadists.
But this pure nonsense isn’t as dangerous as the widely believed myth of the “death panels”.
Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook last week, “Who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly and the disabled, of course.
“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’, whether they are worthy of healthcare.”
Claims like this have mobilised the angry and threatening crowds at town hall meetings across the US this summer.
They hit a number of buttons for the Republican right – hostility to big government, and more subliminal connections between opposition to abortion and the idea that “socialised medicine” will mean state-organised euthanasia.
This is about a lot more than healthcare. The George Bush wing of the Republican Party, struggling to reverse the electoral debacle they suffered last November, believe they have found an issue that has put Obama on the back foot.
Obama’s health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, even said last Sunday that public health insurance was “not the essential element”.
Trying to make sense of it all, Edward Luce, the US editor of the Financial Times, has turned to Richard Hofstadter’s famous study The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which sought to explain the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s.
Luce writes, “America, [Hofstadter] pointed out, was a relatively rootless society, which meant that anyone suffering from economic or status anxiety, particularly its struggling white middle classes, was particularly susceptible to the politics of scapegoating.
“His theory holds up very well in 2009. Opposition to Mr Obama’s healthcare proposals is a lightning rod to a far larger worldview, which seeks to protect American values and the US constitution from an alien takeover.”
In 1994, when Bill Clinton’s administration tried to reform healthcare there wasn’t anything like the same level of mass mobilisation by the right. It was corporate lobbying operations that sunk the plan.
But, according to the New York Times, this time supporters of Obama’s plan have spent $24 million on advertising, supporters of healthcare reform in general another $24 million and opponents only $9 million: “A coalition of drug companies, doctors, for-profit hospitals and union members [has] defended overhauling the system.
“The pharmaceutical industry has also resurrected ‘Harry and Louise’ from 1993-4, when the fictional couple, like the drug industry, was against president Bill Clinton’s health reform proposal. But now, both the drug industry and the couple have had a change of heart and are promoting an overhaul.”
So this isn’t a simple battle between the forces of evil and the useful idiots of Big Pharma. The half-demented footsoldiers of the right have invaded a complicated dance between the White House, Congress and corporate America.
Let’s hope we get to learn more about this side of the story, which is about Obama’s mission to rescue US capitalism.