Right Wing Rhetoric on Health Care – A Page from Last Century’s Playbook
“Socialism is socialism. I’ll give you the fascists of the 1920′s and 30′s. If you don’t like Nazi Germany, I’ll give you Mussolini’s Italy. Or I can give you the Soviet Union anytime in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s. I can give you the North Koreans today. Socialism is socialism where ever it is or whatever you call it.” — Rush Limbaugh, Monday August 11th, 2009
These days, Rush Limbaugh’s talk compares Obama to Hitler, health care to Nazi Germany, Democrats to socialists. He has excited well organized followers to take that message to the public venue. They show up at Congressional town halls across the country. At the least, they hold signs outside that read “Obama is a socialist. It’s a bit more serious when they shout down others who are trying to speak. At the worst, they draw a swastika on Congressional offices which is what happened to the office of Representative David Scott of Georgia.
This rhetoric is not new. It dates back to 1915 – the first time the government considered health care reform. Since people started to organize in favor of heath care, opponents have stirred up hateful opposition, inducing Americans’ fears of communism, fascism, and socialism.
The Short Version of A Long History of Health Reform Efforts
At the turn of the 20th century, few Americans had health coverage. For most people, health care took place in the home. Only the wealthiest had health insurance. It was purchased from private insurance companies. An estimated one-third of union workers contributed into something called a sick fund. Each worker would put in about a dime per week. If he got sick, co-workers would check on him to confirm, then he would receive half a weeks worth of wages for every week he was out.
Overseas, Europe had been experimenting with the idea of government run health care. Great Britain and Germany were the first to adopt it. But the idea was new to the US.
As momentum grew and states began to take up the proposal in 1917, private insurance companies stepped in. Joined by other medical businesses, insurance companies led an intense propaganda campaign. They enlisted people to hand out brochures, talk to the public and the media. They rhetoric is much the same as is heard today. On the bully pulpit, people incited fears of socialism and anti-German sentiment in the US.
Theodore Brown, Historian at the University of Rochester in New York, says they used “scare tactics.” They took “advantage of the hysterical atmosphere of America’s recent entry into the first world war, also post the Russian Revolution.”
Brown provided a brochure from 1918 that reads “Socialistic leaders endorse this scheme, majority of others oppose.” The brochure also says “Compulsory State Health Insurance, also known in German as Reichshranken-Versicherung.” It says its from the New York League for Americanism.
“It was presented as the work of a pro democracy organization, but very enterprising historians have tracked down the addresses listed on this particular pamphlet to two locations. They are the exact addresses of private insurance companies,” Brown said.
It was the first time that special interest formed an organized campaign to defeat a proposal, a technique that is used to this day as industry groups often use front groups to advertise for or against an issue.
Consequently, the efforts to expand health insurance failed in New York and several other states.
Their intense campaign helped to persuade the liberal American Medical Association to switch its position. The AMA joined the side of the insurance companies, hospitals, and other business groups to oppose any effort at government provided health care. It is a special interest coalition that would continue for the next hundred years. Their initial campaign in 1918 was so damaging that health reform wasn’t discussed again until the Great Depression.
During the Depression President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted to revive the idea of government health coverage amidst dramatic unemployment. But the powerful business interests pressured and convinced, Roosevelt to drop the proposal.
John Murray, Professor of Economics at the University of Toledo says “FDR killed [health reform] because he didn’t want the inclusion of health insurance to endanger the legislative success of social security.”
The health care debate was once again reignited during World War II. Wage freezes prompted employers to provide health insurance as an incentive for workers. As the fighting ended on the battlefields across Europe and Asia, President Harry Truman introduced a national health care plan, but Professor Theodore Brown says a war inside the US erupted – a war of words. References to communism and Nazi Germany resurfaced with excess.
“All those tactics that were tried in the late teens and early 20′s were brought out again and amplified and it became very very ugly,” Brown said.
Nearly every decade since the early 1900′s, Presidents have attempted to implement some form of expanded health coverage, but most failed.
Lyndon Johnson was the only one with success with the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. It benefited seniors – a powerful voting block – as health care costs began to rise to unaffordable levels.
The current tactics of right-wing opponents strike a similar chord and could be taken from the same playbook that has been used for the past century. Opponents use the media and public squares to incite peoples’ fears and hatred. Opponents have always prevailed.
Feeling the pressure from the vocal opposition, President Obama this week went on the offensive. Not only is he taking his argument to the people, but he has changed he language of the debate. Instead of calling it health care reform, he began using the term health insurance reform, an attempt to dispel fears that the government will control people’s health care.
Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political journalist that reports from Capitol Hill for Free Speech Radio News.