In 1860, the Democratic Party held its nominating convention in what must have been seen even then by moderates as an insane choice: Charleston, South Carolina. The brand-new Republican party had earlier held its convention in Chicago, and nominated Abraham Lincoln. The expectation is that the Democrats would nominate their best-known national figure, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. It was thought that Douglas, if he won the Presidency might save the nation. Southern states were talking secession, and although no one knew what that might mean, the possibility of civil war loomed over the convention.
Lincoln was widely reviled, inaccurately, as a closet abolitionist. It was true that he was opposed to slavery, but thought it would, if left alone, die out on its own. Douglas was a more conciliatory figure. His policy was ‘popular sovereignty,’ meaning that citizens in the territories should decide such divisive issues as slavery.
This reasonable, democratic position was anathema to the delegates in Charleston. And the key speech–and the one that wrecked the convention, and led directly to the Civil War– was the one delivered by an Alabama delegate, William Lowndes Yancey. His “speech of protest,” as it came to be known, argues that the South’s aim was to destroy democracy, in order to preserve it:
We have come here, with the twofold purpose of saving the country and of saving Democracy; and if the Democracy will not lend itself to that high, holy, and elevated purpose. . . then we say to you, gentlemen, mournfully and regretfully, that in the opinion of . . . the whole South, you have failed.
I thought about Yancey yesterday, watching Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and Sarah Palin speak at a rally in Washington D.C. They were protesting the closing of a National Monument. Ted Cruz, protesting against the National Park Service, which, because of the government shut-down, had to be closed. The government shut-down was his idea. His actions precipitated it. He, and Utah Senator Mike Lee (who I generally refer to, snarkily, as ‘Constitutional Scholar Mike Lee’) were protesting the inevitable consequence of their own decision and choice.
But they had to do it, you see. Because Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, is going to destroy our nation, ruin our economy, take away our liberty. They had to act, they had to shut down the government, they had to risk the full faith and credit of the United States, push us to the brink of default on loans necessary to pay for spending Congress has already authorized, all because Obamacare is so noxious, so destructive, so anti-democratic.
Ted Cruz’s speech ended with this line, cribbed from Ronald Reagan:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
A stirring peroration, to be sure. But Reagan said that in 1961. He was still an actor, then, producing 78 rpm records carrying his speeches. That particular record was about Medicare. Yes, that’s the program that was about to enslave America, the program that would leave us all in our dotage reminiscing about the good old days when men were free. Medicare.
Which President Ronald Reagan later declared indispensable. And worked with then-Speaker Tip O’Neill to strengthen.
At the same rally, protestors shouted abuse at Capitol police, who were simply doing their jobs. Without pay. The crowd was unruly, and so these cops went to work without any assurance they would get a paycheck, to keep order in the nation’s capital.
Our country has gone insane before. The rhetoric in 1860 was all about ‘Constitutional values’ and ‘preserving Democracy,’ and of course, freedom. And what specific freedoms were at stake? The freedom to own other human beings, to profit from their labor, to whip them and shackle them and force them to work without compensation, to enjoy unfettered sexual access to them, to regulate when and what they ate and where and how they worshipped and every single solitary element of their lives. That right, the right to own slaves, is the ‘peculiar institution’ Yancey cited repeatedly in his speech. And taking that right away was, to the likes of William Lowndes Yancey, tyranny.
So what’s at stake now? Obamacare. And every single allegation made about the Affordable Care Act in that rally yesterday and in Ted Cruz’ marathon filibuster and on Fox News and in nearly every conservative media outlet, every allegation is just flat wrong. Just plain dishonest.
So ‘a government takeover of health care.’ No. It just expands health care access to people who can’t afford it right now. My health care options don’t change, not to any degree whatsoever. If you’re on Medicare, yours don’t either. If health insurance is a benefit provided by your employer, nothing changes for you either.
‘Forcing people to buy a product they don’t want.’ That’s how insurance works. You have to buy fire insurance for your home. You have to buy auto insurance to drive a car. People would rather not buy insurance until right up to the point that they need it. But doing that makes insurance impossible. Grow up–living in modern society has some costs attached.
“Going to destroy our economy.” Essentially, Obamacare establishes health insurance exchanges. It’s built on the Massachusetts model. So has Massachusetts’ economy been destroyed? Anyone?
Let me describe what Obamacare does do, however. Let’s suppose you’re a young married couple, with small children at home, not yet established professionally, and without health insurance. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Your daughter wakes up; she’s in terrible pain, headache, is running a fever. You check the internet. Could just be a kid with fever. Could be meningitis.
At this point, you have two possible choices you could make, and both of them are utterly irresponsible. One: you take your daughter to the hospital, to emergency. You rack up a bill you can’t pay, you subject yourself to the collection agency hospitals have to employ nowadays, you maybe arrange for some kind of payment schedule which will further screw up your family budget. Two: you don’t do anything, risking the very real possibility that your daughter has a life-threatening illness. Two choices. Both irresponsible, both wrong.
Obamacare provides another choice: insurance options, and money in a tax credit to pay for it. That’s the evil, that’s the threat to democracy, that’s the tyranny that beckons.
In 1860, our country went insane, driven there by the likes of William Yancey. Today, we’re going insane, driven there by Ted Cruz and Constitutional Scholar Mike Lee. Please, heaven, let’s pray that John Boehner is a patriot. We’ll find out in two days.