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03.23.10

The Biggest Republican Lie

GOP leaders claim most Americans are outraged over the health-care bill. They're wrong. Michelle Goldberg on what the polls really show—and the right's fuzzy math.

Among the mass of delusions that constitute the worldview of the Republican Party, one has recently come to the fore. They are convinced that they speak for a majority, that they are the voice of “the American people,” and that the government has been hijacked by a subversive fringe. Thus health-care reform, enacted by both houses of Congress, signed by a president who won a decisive victory in the last election, becomes a shocking affront to democracy.

“For most of the 20th century people fled the ghosts of communist dictators,” intoned California Rep. Devin Nunes during the House debate on Sunday night. “And now you are bringing the ghosts back into this chamber.” House Minority Leader John Boehner, looking like he was on the verge of Glenn Beck-style sobs, said, “Today we stand here amidst the wreckage of what was once the respect and honor that this House was held in by our fellow citizens… We have failed to listen to America.”

Republicans have long seen themselves as synonymous with America, and everyone else as deviant and marginal.

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On Monday, Beck himself, issuing the latest of his warnings of impending tyranny, told his Fox audience that “the overwhelming majority in America” opposed the bill. Even the average Democrat, he insisted, was appalled. “Because the average Democrat is not the California hippie, Marxist, socialist, communist, progressive sticking flowers in the barrel, sitting around smoking dope all day during college and talking about how they can destroy the evil American empire. That's not what the average Democrat was doing or the average American. But that is what a lot of people in our government were doing in the 1960s. And I bet—what time it is now? A lot of them are still doing it.”

Health care, in other words, passed in spite of the ardent wishes of real Americans.

This is a lie, though like most effective lies, it has a grain of truth in it. Surveys taken before health care was passed showed bare majority—one within the margin of error—against the health-care reform plan. According to a Gallup poll from March 9, 45 percent of respondents wanted their representatives to vote for the bill and 48 percent to vote against it. Seven percent had no opinion. Some small slice of that 48 percent almost certainly opposed the plan from the left, and others doubtlessly opposed it on the basis of misinformation about what it contains; after all, the bill’s individual components consistently polled well. Meanwhile, the American public is already becoming more positive about health care reform: in the latest Gallup poll, half of respondents were enthusiastic or pleased that it passed, while 42% were angry or disappointed.

But even if we accept the earlier polls at face value, American democracy is not run by the ever-shifting results of telephone opinion surveys. Republicans should know this, since they heaped scorn on Bill Clinton for governing according to his poll numbers. The polls that count are elections, and even Scott Brown’s victory in the special Senate election in Massachusetts does not overturn the results of the national vote in 2008.

At the same time, even if the polls have demonstrated wariness with health-care reform, they hardly represented a groundswell of support for the party of Beck. A CBS News survey released yesterday showed immense cynicism about Democratic motives: Only 35 percent of respondents thought Democrats were driven by concern for policy over politics in pushing health care through. But only 29 percent thought the GOP was acting in good faith in opposing it. The same poll showed that while only 32 percent approved of congressional Democrats’ handling of health care, Republican numbers were even worse at 25 percent.

This isn’t really a debate about numbers, though. Republicans have long seen themselves as synonymous with America, and everyone else as deviant and marginal. This article of faith is impervious to evidence. Surveys show that a majority of Republicans believe that Obama stole the election with Acorn’s help, a conviction that allows them to deny a political reality they find intolerable. More subtly, conservatives have long derided the Democratic Party’s “dependence” on minority voters, as if these voters are somehow less valid. The GOP’s belief in their right to rule has an unmistakable racial aspect; hence the racial slurs hurled against black congressmen last week, and the right’s repeated comparisons of health-care reform to slavery. This is, in part, white men reacting in furious disbelief that they can no longer rule as a majority, because they aren’t one.

Since Nixon, the idea that Republicans constitute a silent majority of decent people—all recoiling from the noisy demands of anti-war protesters, black militants, and radical feminists—has been fundamental to Republican identity. But the entire notion of a silent majority was meant to counter the idea that the loudest, most provocative protesters are most expressive of America at large. The Tea Partiers, goading each other into ever more febrile ecstasies of outrage, might have the happy illusion that they represent a genuine uprising of The People. The '60s protesters who gave rise to Nixon’s backlash felt exactly the same way.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.