Starve the beast

And so, through the dog days of August, the town hall meetings continued. As did the cable news images of angry citizens, rising not to ask civil questions but to yell at their representatives. "Nuke healthcare reform," screamed one woman at her Congressman, while a wave of cheers and applause followed.

Such assertions beg the question, where is all this vitriol coming from? The barely controlled rage doesn't seem commensurate with the issues at hand: health care for all Americans, eliminating fraud from Medicare, a public option coupled with end of life counseling. The rage seems deeper and more personal, a wellspring of frustration and fear and brimming hostility that transcend any specific issue.

So, how to judge the mood of these people and understand the positions taken by the Republicans who seem reflexively opposed to any kind of reform, who seem instead content to just say no.

Perhaps one explanation resides with the rigidly conservative view of government, one often articulated by Ronald Reagan: "Government is not the solution. Government is the problem." Reagan, selling his anti-government brand, often chided liberals for believing (or so he insisted) that "if it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it." Big government, big brother.

That 59 percent of voters still agree with Reagan's simplistic view is perplexing at best and dangerous at worst. Grover Norquist, conservative ideologue and prime architect of G.W. Bush's tax cuts, mirroring Reagan, preached that government should be reduced until it's small enough to fit in a bathtub and then drowned. In other words, government is the enemy, and if allowed to grow will ultimately infringe on all of our freedoms as defined in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

For many conservatives, this mistrust of government is not simply a scaffolding of positions and political ideology; it's an entrenched theology. Viewed through this lens, health care reform morphs into a big-government attack on personal rights, commingled with a loss of liberty. Universal health care is portrayed as socialized medicine, a government takeover, Hitlerian in intent. Government bureaucrats will stand between you and your doctor. Death panels will pull the plug on the elderly.

Again, the conservative mantra: That government is best that governs least. Starve the beast. Eliminate all government agencies that regulate capitalistic enterprise. Let loose the hounds of profit. And if there is a financial meltdown, do nothing, no matter that such a response could result in the country sliding into a prolonged, ruinous depression wherein companies and banks close, fearful consumers hunker down, unemployment spikes to Great Depression levels and retail sales contract.

America is not just about the last person standing. It's also about safety nets and caring for one another. It's about Social Security, Welfare, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, public schools and public universities. It's about the Veterans Administration and health care for children. It's about regulatory agencies: the EPA and clean water and clean air; the FDA and safe food and safe drugs; the CDC protecting us from epidemics such as the swine flu and monitoring the nation's health; and those agencies that protect consumers from, among many things, predatory lenders.

There are some things that government can do and can do well.

To embrace the idea that we should starve the beast, or drown it in a bathtub, good grief, is so simplistic, so fatuous as to be incomprehensible. And to nurture fantasies that government is the enemy, part of a coordinated attempt to strip Americans of their amendment rights, is a fantasy. Health care is about civil rights, just not about the rights of those who have insurance and are protesting at town hall meetings.

And those who join well-armed militias and train for an apocalypse, in the belief that imagined government intrusion is best met by an armed response, well, they're delusional and dangerous.

In a democracy there will always be a tension between the rights of the individual and the will of the majority. You can't cry fire in a crowded theater. That is and will be the challenge of our democracy. But to view the government as the enemy — to view healthcare reform through the same distorted prism — is a threat to good governance, and it's time to get over it. Or, in the alternative, begin by sending back your Medicare and Social Security cards. See how that works.

Chris Honoré writes for Revels. His reviews appear weekly.

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