One of the more curious developments to come out of right-wing opposition to health insurance reform and the overall Tea Bagger movement are the many examples of people vociferously opposing government programs they will or already do benefit greatly from. There has already been lots of commentary about working and middle class citizens "voting against their interests," which is to say voting against liberal politicians who would represent their economic interests and voting for conservative politicians who promote "culture war" issues. I think, though, that this is now going a step further.
Even the mainstream media has been paying more attention to this phenomenon. The New York Times had a lengthy article pointing out how during the Great Depression working and middle class Americans mobilized for populist movements that demanded greater government action and assistance. Today, in contrast, those same sorts of people are mobilizing to demand less government action and assistance — even as they are relying more and more on whatever government assistance they can get.
What Tea Baggers Believe
Tom Grimes lives on Social Security but denounces government assistance as "false philanthropy." Grimes insists that people would figure out how make do on their own if the government didn't give them stuff, but he doesn't turn down government assistance to figure out how to make do on his own. Diana Reimer insists that it's not the job of the government to help insure the people, but she relies on Medicare which is government-run insurance — because she "deserves" it.
Jeff McQueen, like other Tea Baggers, wants government to be smaller but also wants the government to be more involved with regulating free trade — then votes for Republicans who want to cut back on government regulations. Amy Townsend, according to the Dallas Morning News, says that no government programs work well because they are inefficient and fears the "death panels" she thinks will be created by health insurance reform. However, she and her family are surviving because of government programs: unemployment and COBRA. She'll apply for government-subsidized health insurance when the time comes.
Tea Bagger Beliefs & Actions
Usually, concern with people "voting against their interests" involves interests that are arguably distant and even theoretical. It's easy to lose sight of the connection between liberal politicians promoting strong environmental regulations and having clean water or clean air. Even with issues like minimum wage and other job protections, it's private employers the average person is dealing with, not the government. It's not smart to miss the fact that your job is safer, better, and pays more because of liberal politicians, then vote for politicians who will repeal all those protections, but it's not difficult to see how people do miss it after all.
It's a bit harder to comprehend how people can oppose government benefits while living off of government benefits, can oppose the government strengthening publicly-funded health insurance while relying on publicly-funded Medicare, and so forth. The contradictions here appear to be far stronger and more obvious than the contradictions in cases like those mentioned above. These aren't professional pundits and politicians doing this, so they aren't just lying because it's part of their jobs. These are regular people who must be presumed to be expressing genuine beliefs — especially since they are acting on those beliefs.
You can tell what people genuinely believe by observing their actions, so if their actions contradict professed beliefs you can reasonably conclude that their genuine beliefs aren't exactly what they are saying. But what if people are acting on beliefs which are contradictory? People can be incredibly irrational, incredibly stupid, and sometimes even both, but it seems to me that something quite abnormal must be going on for people to take action on behalf of such explicitly contradictory positions.
Tea Bagger Resentments
I wonder if what we're seeing might be an extreme form of resentment. For decades, white working and middle class citizens have been taught by Republicans to equate all forms of social welfare with blacks and other racial minorities, with laziness, with communists, and with generally un-American or even anti-American principles. Those who bought most into this, desperate to self-identify as distinct from minorities while somehow belonging with the ruling class, have become a foundation of the conservative movement.
Granted, they will never become part of the ruling class, but they can imagine that they might, and what's more they are encouraged to imagine themselves superior to a host of other groups: black, Latinos, immigrants, Arabs, Muslims, atheists, gays, etc. They are given people to hate now and a dream of even greater power in the future; in exchange, they serve as foot soldiers for those who are in charge and for whose interests they will literally sacrifice their health, security, and even their lives.
Their caricature of government programs has never been consistent with reality — more poor whites receive welfare than poor blacks, for example — but direct government assistance has been distant enough from white working and middle class voters that they have been able to live in denial. Government reform of health care and health insurance threatens to overturn this carefully constructed wall between social reality and the social resentments used to construct their self-image.
Tea Bagger Cognitive Dissonance
If you stop to think about it, you'll notice that the more thoroughly health care and health insurance are reformed, the greater contact people will have with direct forms of government assistance. The most modest reform ideas leave the health insurance industry largely intact, so most people will continue to deal with private insurers and few will benefit from government subsidies. The most radical reform would virtually eliminate for-profit health insurance and everyone would pay into a single, public insurance system, putting everyone into regular contact with direct government assistance.
If people have constructed a self-image which is based, at least in part, on resentment against those who receive direct government assistance, then any attempt to provide them with direct government assistance threatens that self-image and will therefore be treated quite naturally as a threat. The fact that they receive other forms of assistance is irrelevant so long as they can keep up the charade that it's not really from the government or that they "earned" it somehow (unlike those lazy X who don't deserve it).
A situation like this might make it possible for a person to both fight to preserve the government assistance they receive as "just" while fighting even harder to not receive any more government assistance because that would be "socialism." Two contradictory beliefs may thus be genuinely held and acted upon, and it comes back at least in some ways to things like the Republican "Southern Strategy" of gaining more white votes by promoting resentment, fear, suspicion, and outright hatred of non-whites.
In a sense, this "white" identity which Republicans have worked hard to construct is helping shorten the lives and destroy the economic security of their white supporters. But neither good health nor economic security is actually necessary to secure votes and maintain power for the privileged elites, is it? Indeed, a bit of insecurity and ill health may actually help because it will increase their fears — fear that they won't "make it" into the big leagues and/or that members of other groups might surpass them. Such fears can make people desperate, inducing ever more extreme behavior.