RELIGIOUS-right insignia were conspicuously absent at the street theatre in the Washington Mall which marked the final debate on President Obama’s health-care Bill. Demonstrators rallied under the Tea Party freedom flag displaying the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”
After the vote, Randy Millam, an unemployed assembly-line worker, drove from his home in rural Iowa to a demonstration in Iowa City. He joined a crowd of like-minded citizens protesting at the “government take-over of health care”.
“The President just about declared war against the American people,” Mr Millam told reporters. “Every single person’s body in this whole country belongs to the government now.”
The demonstration in Iowa City was just one part of the ongoing populist revolt against government. After abandoning the Democratic Party in the 1960s, the American working class became “Reagan Democrats”, and then the Republican Party’s “base” — supporting all policies that favoured big business and the super-rich while opposing any programmes from which they themselves might benefit.
Pundits did not know what to make of it. It was not based on religion, even though secular journalists tried to spin it that way. It was not based on racism. The Tea Party crowds hurled occasional racial epithets — but that was not a central theme; neither was immigration, or handouts to the undeserving poor.
The protest was about freedom: freedom to choose one’s doctor, freedom to remain uninsured, and freedom to control one’s earnings — ideally, the freedom of unlimited consumer choice. The idea of risk-pooling was anathema to the protesters, because it meant that their contribution to the system might benefit someone else. It was morally wrong, they believed, for the government to force citizens to pay other people’s way. They would, of course, give to charity: that was a consumer choice.
Consumer choice is good, but there are other goods that contribute to freedom —including freedom from physical constraint, leisure, and the opportunity to better oneself. If the cost of consumer choice is more physical constraint or less leisure or fewer opportunities to better oneself, that has to be counted.
But American workers did not count it. After the Second World War, they traded off leisure for higher wages. It is said that Americans now work longer hours than citizens of any other developed country. Of OECD member-states, all but the US guarantee workers some paid annual leave. Among OECD countries, the US is close to the bottom on scales of economic equality and social mobility.
Americans, however, do not recognise the dearth of leisure or opportunities to better themselves as restrictions on their freedom or well-being. Working-class Americans, in particular, identify freedom with disposable income and consumer choice — the only significant freedom they enjoy.
Because of this attitude to freedom, government is seen as a threat. Taxes and government regulations restrict consumer choice. Because they have relatively little freedom of any kind to spare, working-class Americans jealously guard what little they have. They do not believe they will benefit from national health insurance — or any government programme: they regard public services, cut to the bone after a generation of conservative policy, as a last resort for the underclass.
All they see is a government programme, which they believe will impose a further tax burden on them to pay for a bloated bureaucracy, impose endless burdensome regulations, and erode their freedom of choice.
Dr Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, California.