Health Care and Resentment

 

The great national controversy about health care is, I submit, about something more than health care.

Man-in-the-street conservatives (as opposed to conservative intellectuals) feel — and feel very correctly — that they are viewed with great disdain and contempt by upper-middle-class liberals who, thanks to the elections of 2006 and 2008, happen to be running the country at the moment. Now, it doesn’t hurt you when people view you with disdain — provided they make a successful effort to conceal this fact and to treat you with courtesy. But today’s liberal elites make only the very slightest attempt to conceal the disdain they feel for their social and cultural inferiors — i.e., “Main Street” conservatives.

Not surprisingly, then, these conservatives have come to resent the liberal elite. As a consequence, almost every time such a liberal comes up with an idea, the Main-Street conservative opposes it. Liberal elites are in favor of President Obama’s health-care proposals, So Main-Street conservatives oppose it — as they made clear at the famous congressional town hall meetings held in August.

It is not that conservative criticisms of Obama’s health-care package are invalid; I myself think that a number of them are valid. But the passionate dislike felt for this package by Main-Street conservatives is not the result of dispassionate study. Rather, it is the result of resentment — a resentment that is growing stronger every day — these conservatives feel for liberal elites, the authors of this package. “I don’t care how good you say your package is,” says the average conservative. “The fact that it’s your package is enough for me to mistrust it.”

Feelings of patriotism get mixed up in this. Main-Street conservatives believe that they are more truly patriotic, more truly American, than are liberal elites. There is some truth to this. These conservatives are “hard” patriots; that is, they are flag-wavers who are willing to say without embarrassment that America is “the greatest country in the world.” It is they who provide sons and daughters for the U.S. military. By contrast, liberal elites are patriotic in a “soft” way; that is, they are internationalists or cosmopolitans. While they love their country, it is not an unconditional love they feel. They are ever mindful of America’s many historical and present-day deficiencies. They rarely encourage their children to enlist in the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force.

And so, if you’re a Main-Street conservative, not only are you irritated that you are being governed by people who look down their noses at you; doubling or tripling your irritation is the feeling that you are being governed by people whom you see as less than 100 percent American. (This may help explain a curious phenomenon: the conservative fringe that doubts that President Obama — liberal elite par excellence — is a natural-born American.)

There may even be a tinge of racial feeling to some of this. If the liberal elite are running the country today, this is largely due to the election of Barack Obama to the White House in 2008; and Obama’s election was in great measure the result of a de facto alliance between these elite liberals on the one hand and, on the other, African-American voters, who turned out in big numbers and gave Obama about 95 percent of their vote. President Obama — both African-American and a liberal — is the perfect symbol of that alliance. Some Main-Street conservatives see this and feel not a little resentment.

 

If I’m right here, or even approximately correct, this goes a long way toward understanding the immense popularity of Sarah Palin among these Main-Street conservatives. She is (or at least gives the impression of being) one of their own. Her enthusiastic Americanism, her old-time religion, her pro-life-ism, her love of guns and hunting, her “aw shucks” manner, her love (when she was young) of beauty pageants, her manly husband, her soldier son, her handicapped child, even her daughter who “got in trouble” by doing something she knows she shouldn’t have done — all these make her the perfect representative of the Main-Street conservative. No wonder they love her.

And how delicious that this perfect symbol of man-in-the-street conservatism should be a woman. Decades ago, the liberal elite promoted feminism in the expectation that women, once empowered, would support their agenda. Surprise! Feminism has led, after many twists and turns, to Sarah Palin, a woman who repudiates the radical feminist/liberal agenda.

Every time liberal elites and their camp followers mock, ridicule, scorn, or denounce Sarah Palin — something they love to do, something they can’t get enough of — Main-Street conservatives feel that it is they themselves who are being mocked, ridiculed, scorned, and denounced. These liberals are in effect saying, with no pretense of the courtesy one is supposed to show in a pluralistic society: “You under-educated, fundamentalist, anti-choice, homophobic, racist, gun-toting, hate-filled, hypocritical super-patriots — what imbeciles you are! Go stand in the corner until you can learn to be modern and respectable human beings.”

Who then can be surprised that Main-Street conservatives are reflexively opposed to Obama’s health-care agenda? If the liberal ruling class would really like to reform the American health-care system, they should try to see themselves as others see them; they might begin by making the effort of sympathetic imagination needed to put themselves in the shoes of Main-Street conservatives.

By

David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion" and "The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America." Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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