You could call it a rude awakening. Over the past few weeks Europeans have reacted with shock and incredulity as they’ve watched the “debate” over US healthcare reform unfold across the pond. How could it be, they’ve asked me in tones of sheer exasperation, that even in the face of a healthcare crisis Americans could be so credulous as to believe the outlandish lies being spread about Obama’s healthcare reform effort. Death panels? Enemy lists? Nazi euthanasia? How, they’ve asked, could anyone be so stupid?
I haven’t had a good answer to give them, except that this is the cold hard reality of the place American politics has found itself in today. As I’ve written about before, many Europeans were lulled into a premature sense of relief when Barack Obama was elected in November. But while the head may have changed, the body remains the same – this is the same American public that elected George W. Bush twice. The combination of powerful vested interests in Washington, a strong right-wing media that dominates civic discourse, and a population that is, let’s face it, rather uninformed, mean that Barack Obama has his work cut out for him if he wants to effect real change. Getting elected was just the first step.
The mobs that have turned up to congressional town halls to shout down any discussion of healthcare reform, waving placards of Obama with a Hitler moustache and screaming about his “Nazi policies”, aren’t actually concerned about healthcare. This is about something much bigger, a general right-wing paranoia and militarism that tends to arise every time a progressive Democratic president is elected. It happened in the 1960’s culminating in a wave of political assassinations, it happened in the 1990’s culminating in the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma city by right-wing fanatic Timothy McVeigh, and it’s happening again now. Progressive Democratic presidents scare the bejesus out of the right-wing fringe inspiring hysteria and violence (although why this didn’t happen with Carter I don’t know, any ideas?).
What’s different this time around is that powerful Washington forces have decided to tap into this right-wing rage and use it to their own political advantage. Fox News has seen an opportunity to define themselves in the Obama era by stoking the flames of hysteria and paranoia, increasing their viewership handily over the past several months. The healthcare and energy lobbies have been able to tap into this paranoid rage by convincing people that attempts to reform their industries are actually part of a grand fascist scheme to enforce a dictatorship.
The most absurd example of this came yesterday when protesters congregated in Texas to rail against Obama’s “Nazi” climate change bill, which would finally sign the US up to international agreements to fight climate change. At first glance it might seem bizarre that ordinary citizens are turning up to yell and scream about a piece of legislation that doesn’t have much to do with them but rather affects the oil and gas industries, right? Well if you look at the bottom of their placards many read that they are concerned “Energy Citizens”, and if you look into the origin of this group you can see it’s actually sponsored by the oil and gas industry, whose trade organisation was recently revealed in a leaked memo to be suggesting that oil company employees be mobilized for these “grass roots protests” in order to “put a human face” on the resistance to the bill.
The same has been true of the healthcare protest and the “tea-bagging” protests, both organised by powerful Washington lobby groups working with the aid of Fox news, which gets people revved up telling them the healthcare reform bill will kill their grandma.
Is this in the bill? No. Is it rational to say Obama is a racist Nazi because he’s trying to reform the nation’s healthcare system? No. But these myths persist, with the majority of Americans now saying they’re concerned about Obama’s healthcare reform effort. It now looks like the administration is going to take the public option off the table or break up the legislation, which would effectively mean the myth-spreading tactics have worked. Meaningful healthcare reform could be dead.
Don’t Get too Smug, Europe
But before Europeans shake their heads and roll their eyes at the seemingly hopeless ignorance of the American public, might I remind them that they are not immune to these impulses either. In trying to explain to Europeans the raw emotion surrounding this debate, I’ve been struggling to think of an issue here that brings out the same level of irrationality. It wasn’t long before my mind settled on the EU. When it comes to ridiculous irrational myths, European knowledge of the EU - particularly in the UK - could give these American healthcare protesters a run for their money.
Take the debate over the Lisbon reform treaty. The accusations levelled against it in the UK and Irish media have been absurd almost to the point of self-parody. According to the British media the treaty is a “massive power grab” that will turn the EU into a “totalitarian super-state”. Sound familiar? In reality, the treaty simply makes tweaks to the EU’s governing structure, changes that have been made necessary by the recent EU enlargement. The main purpose of the treaty is to make the EU more efficient and cost-effective, not to give it more power. Its goal, much like the healthcare reform bill, is to help people – not to hurt them. But that doesn't stop the totalitariansism comparisons. Just take a look at this over-the-top video from YouTube.
Euromyths are rampant in the UK. Some examples of completely baseless euromyths spread by the British media: English fish and chips shops would be forced to use Latin names for the fish (The Sun, 5 September 2001), double-decker buses would be banned (The Times, 9 April 1998), British rhubarb must be straight and barmaids would have to cover up their cleavage. (Update April 2010: Here's a recent patently absurd - and easily disprovable - example from the Daily Mail about the EU supposedly changing the name of the British Channel to the "Anglo-French Pond". That story was picked up by numerous other media outlets including the BBC's 'Have I got News for You'.) All of these are widely believed in Britain yet are completely untrue. Many euromyths can be traced directly to deliberate attempts by lobbysists to influence policy in Brussels. And they’re frequently presented in the same kind of screaming-headline, hysterical tone that is now being employed in the US healthcare debate.
And of course, a recurring complaint about both the Helathcare reform bill and the Lisbon reform treaty is that they're too long and complicated for ordinary people to understand. And because they're so long, they must be trying to pull something over on everyone! Because naturally, incredibly complex piece of legislation should be easily understandable by your local trash collector.
In the UK, the right-leaning media makes completely baseless and false accusations about the EU and about the Lisbon Treaty, saying it will do things that are not at all in the document such as ban abortion across the EU, mandate an EU army, establish an EU constitution or subjugate member state courts. The public comes to accept these myths as fact. Then when it comes time for a vote, as occurred with the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty last June, the public bases their vote on the misinformation they’ve received about the EU and the treaty. Democracy at its finest.
Can you imagine if healthcare reform were being put to a referendum in the US? It would never have any hope of passing. In fact the only way that this legislation may actually come to pass now is if the US congress does the right thing and bypasses the will of the people, making the responsible informed decision that a vast swathe of the American public cannot make themselves because they are so misinformed. This is how representative democracy is supposed to work – citizens elect representatives and entrust them with the responsibility of becoming versed in issues that ordinary citizens are not equipped to make decisions on themselves. This is why it is irresponsible to put a complex legal document like the Lisbon Treaty or healthcare reform to a public referendum. It is the worst perversion of Democracy – mob rule.
People tend to be pretty gullible, and powerful interests will always be able to manipulate them. Now that the internet has brought us what sociologists have termed the "post-fact society", this misinformation is very easy to spread - be it in America or Europe.
No Appetite for Revolution
Now to be fair, the level of hyperbole used in mainstream media around the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t reached the alarming heights of the US healthcare debate. And the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t inspired gun-totting mobs to show up at politician’s doorsteps last time I checked. Comparisions to Nazis are rarely used on the continent, as the memory of what the Nazis really were is still too raw to throw around the comparisons as lightly as Americans do. But the difficulties encountered in both efforts for reform show how difficult it can be to change societal systems at the dawn of the new millennium, as we prepare to enter the 7th decade of peacetime in the Western world. As successful as most European healthcare programs are, I can guarantee that there would be widespread panic if any governments tried to completely overhaul them in order to fix remaining problems (as has been evidenced in the recent rush to defend the NHS from Tory politicians on US TV).
The fact is all of these big social programs, on either side of the Atlantic, were instituted in the years following World War II at a time when the public was still traumatized enough to have the appetite for real massive change. Really, you’d have to go back to the 60’s to find the last examples of real overhauls of government systems in the Western World (although I’d love to hear examples you can name to the contrary). These days people just don’t have the appetite for change. They’re living in an era of unprecedented peace in the Western world, and even if there are major problems with system X, it’s working just fine for now thank you very much. Whether it be the EU project or healthcare reform, people in 2009 are just not mentally prepared for big change. Having lived their entire lives in peace, they just don’t have the appetite for risk. And powerful interests have grown up around the existing institutions that will resist change in order to safeguard their own interests.
Yet in both situations, the seeming comfort of the status quo is an illusion. Neither current situation is tenable in the long-term. In the US, while one out of every five Americans under 65 is uninsured, the majority do have insurance and, since they don’t know any better because they’ve never seen a European healthcare system, they think their coverage is the best in the world (Americans usually by default assume their anything is the best in the world). But the system of employer-funded healthcare is untenable. The US now spends around 15% of its GDP on healthcare, second only to East Timor among United Nations member states. Left unchanged, that number could rise to something like 30% in just a few decades. The current system is literally strangling small business. But all most Americans with insurance see is that they go to the doctor, he treats them, they get better. There is no crisis, they assume.
The same can be said of Europeans and their thoughts about the place in the world of their individual member state. The fact is that in a post Cold War world, with the rising power of India and China and the fact that the US no longer has a strategic long-term interest in safeguarding European defence, no individual European member state can hope to be a significant player on the world stage in the 21st century on its own. Yet your average British person hasn’t come to grips with this fact. As far as they can see, they appear to have a big influence on the world culturally (they often mistake American cultural imperialism’s use of English as somehow attributable to themselves), they are nuclear armed, they have a seat on the UN security council and they are in the G8. But the fact is in 50 years they are unlikely to have any of these things (except perhaps an aging fleet of dangerous and dilapidated Trident submarines) if they were to go it on their own. It’s a situation where the prospect of the UK separating from the EU could easily appear to be fine to the average British person, but where people with a real knowledge of world events and future projections know that is not a viable option.
In the meantime the media, big business and right-leaning politicians are all too willing to exploit the average person’s ignorance and lack of foresight in order to serve their own interests, convincing them that reform efforts that are meant to help the average person are actually an effort to impose a dictatorial superstate. It’s the situation we find ourselves in at the dawn of the 21st century on either side of the Atlantic.
We are, it would seem, a risk-averse species by nature. And a gullible one to boot.