Last week, the GOP-dominated House of Representatives voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — or “Obamacare.” As expected, the vote fell largely along party lines.
House Speaker John Boehner and his partisans knew perfectly well that the vote was political theater. In the very unlikely event that the Senate followed suit, President Obama would surely veto any effort to repeal his most significant achievement. It was the 33rd time the House has voted to repeal all or parts of the law, so Boehner’s minions are well-practiced at this tedious bit of drama.
It plays well to the GOP electorate. While the nation is closely divided on the merits of health care reform — polls show about half the voters support it, while about half do not — the Republican base is strongly opposed. Independent voters want Congress to move on to other matters, such as kick-starting the sluggish economy, but very conservative voters want the Affordable Care Act ripped out, root and branch.
Given the broad merits of the law — which guarantees virtually universal access to health care — that’s odd. It’s especially curious when you consider that Obamacare still has private health insurance at its heart; that’s unlike Medicare, a single-payer system of health insurance delivered entirely by the government. The senior citizens who rant that the Affordable Care Act takes the country down the path to “socialism” may have missed the irony.
Some part of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act is based on gross misperceptions. Even before the law passed, conservative opponents started a disinformation campaign based on distortions, deceit and outright lies. The most infamous of those was the claim about death panels, which was so outrageous it was hard to believe that responsible people would repeat it. But arch-conservatives such as Sarah Palin have no trouble being irresponsible in support of their causes.
But there is another, equally troubling facet of the opposition to health care reform — simple racial prejudices. Allow me to be as clear: There are certainly critics of the Affordable Care Act who hold no racial animosity. But there is also an impressive body of research that strongly suggests racial prejudice fuels some of the opponents.
In 2009, for example, Stanford University researchers offered volunteers information about a health care plan supported by Obama and one supported by former President Bill Clinton. In fact, the plans were identical. But those who showed unconscious racial biases were much more likely to reject Obama’s plan, the researchers reported.
Social scientists have concluded that many conservative white voters harbor a racial animosity that fuels their opposition to certain forms of government largess, especially if they believe it benefits the undeserving (black) poor. Political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders, authors of “Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals,” call it a “subtle prejudice for modern times.”
That helps explain why working-class whites are especially hostile to the Affordable Care Act. Polls show that they are among the groups most likely to believe that health care reform will benefit someone else, not them.
They’re wrong, of course. Working-class voters — white, black and brown — are among those who will benefit most. Professionals either get insurance at the office or can afford their own policies. The very poor are eligible for Medicaid. But people employed in jobs that don’t require a college degree are more likely to be stranded by the high costs of health care.
If the law is fully implemented, those voters may eventually figure out what a benefit they’ve received from Obamacare. But a cadre of Republican governors has insisted that won’t happen; they are prepared to take a figurative stand in the schoolhouse door against the law, even though the Supreme Court has upheld it.
That’s the very definition of political cynicism. Many of those pols have pandered to white voters’ racial fears. And they want racial antagonisms to keep those voters frozen in their partisan loyalties.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)