From North of the 49th Parallel, watching the opposition to President Obama's health care legislation has been like watching a play from the Theatre of the Absurd. Those of us who have lived with a more radical version of health care -- single payer -- know that medicare does not put insurance companies out of business; and there are no "death panels."
But as congressmen and women entered the Capitol last Sunday to cast their votes, it was particularly disturbing to hear the slurs which were directed at some of them. And last week, when the bill was reconciled and signed into law by the president, the rhetoric turned even uglier. As rocks were thrown at windows, and the bombastic Rush Limbaugh and the less than brilliant Sarah Palin announced that it was time to get rid of "these bastards," others were suggesting that every Democrat who voted for health care was about to face "Armageddon."
A Baptist minister in Orange County asked his flock to pray for the deaths of the apostates. Choosing Psalm 109 as his text -- "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow" -- the Rev. Wiley Drake assured his followers that justice would flow down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It did, indeed, appear that a significant portion of the population -- and all the elected representatives of the Republican Party -- had lost their minds.
It was Frank Rich, in yesterday's New York Times who -- as he does so often -- helped make sense of the nonsensical. "To find a prototype to the overheated reaction to the health care bill," he wrote, "you would have to look a year before Medicare to the Civil Rights Act of 1964." That bill "signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance."
The election of Barack Obama was a similar moment. It served as a sign that American politics had caught up with the rest of the world. No longer were white men in charge. When Tea Partiers shout, "Take our country back!" they are -- like William F. Buckley -- standing "athwart history yelling STOP." That was Buckley's prime directive; and it led him to support racial segregation -- a position he later admitted was wrong. Those who were spitting on black legislators last weekend have never undergone Buckley's epiphany. But, Rich pointed out, demographics are against them:
The week before the health care vote, the Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non Hispanic white births will be in a minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven't had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three since 1935.
It's worth remembering that the first Republican president signed the Emancipation Proclamation, established the land grant colleges and signed the Homestead Act -- all of which looked forward to the future and the 20th Century.
The March Backward began when Richard Nixon conceived his Southern Strategy -- which was a cynical attempt to capitalize on the anger white southerners felt after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It continued when Ronald Reagan began his campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi -- where three Civil Rights workers were killed shortly before the act became law. From then on, Republicans began talking in code. Anyone who knew anything about the South understood the code.
The remnants of the Republican Party are those unhinged voters who Nixon courted -- and they have stopped talking in code. The United States has moved on. But a significant number of people, trapped inside their own paranoia, refuse to recognize that fact.