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Right Beneath the Surface

What opponents of gay marriage and health care reform have in common.

The conservative attacks on health care reform and Barack Obama's economic plan seem to have reached a fever pitch this week. Their obsession with the topics has been matched only by the inanity of most of their critiques. Why are the conservative talking points on these issues grounded in such weak arguments? Is there something else at play here?

This reaction seemed strangely familiar as I read Matthew Yglesias's recent post about the Christian Right's obsession with gay marriage. As a matter of course, your average Christian Right crusader against gay marriage acts as though the issue vitally affects non-gay people: It cheapens "real" marriage and threatens the "traditional family," they argue. Others claim that it enshrines relativistic morals and violates the religious rights of Christians. What unites most of these arguments is that they claim not to be about denying gay people their rights, but protecting non-gay people.

None of these arguments are particularly strong. And not coincidentally, if you spend much time around regular conservative folk (rather than pundits or spokesmen) who oppose gay marriage, they won't be making them. Rather, you hear various forms of personal and Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, usually combined with outrage that these people demand legal protection for their unsavory behavior. You don't hear this in public in part because dehumanizing gay people isn't as generally acceptable as it used to be. But it's still there, under the surface, and may be one of the reasons why critics of gay marriage keep fighting against gay marriage despite the ludicrous nature of their public arguments.

This may actually help explain many of the absurd conservative attacks on Obama's economic and health care agenda. We're painfully accustomed to hearing that Obama is herding Americans into socialism, is destroying the private-sector economy, and is determined to create a health care system that combines the bureaucracy of Great Britain with the ethics of Nazi Germany. Do the people repeating and encouraging this sort of talk really believe it?

Maybe, but there may also be something a little more direct going on in the conservative psychology. There was an interesting vignette at one of the infamous town hall meetings last week in which a disabled woman on crutches who had lost her health insurance was accosted by another woman who shouted, "I shouldn't have to pay for your health care!" amidst jeering applause from other health reform opponents. That was no more than a crude expression of what some conservative elite spokesmen have explicitly said, such as ABC's John Stossel, who describes Obama's plan as "a form of expensive, taxpayer-funded welfare."

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it echoes what we heard repeatedly among angry grassroots conservatives during the 2008 campaign, particularly after the financial collapse: Irresponsible people (many of whom happen to be minorities) have wrecked the economy by taking out mortgages they couldn't afford, and were subsequently trying to elect Obama to get themselves more welfare at the expense of good, productive people who didn't live beyond their means. Indeed, long after welfare reform supposedly took this conservative wedge issue off the table, anger about "welfare"--as applied to mortgage relief, progressive taxes, and now health reform--has made quite a comeback. One of the most potent things about the 1980s-vintage attacks on "welfare" was that they endowed some pretty ugly emotions with self-righteousness, and even a sense of victimization, for people who felt they were being punished for being productive. It seems clear that many of Obama's right-wing critics are motivated as much by moral judgments about the beneficiaries of his polices as by their alleged impact on the economy or the health care system.

But in the same way that it's no longer acceptable to publicly hate on gay people, it is not terribly respectable to publicly hate the poor, to consider minorities inherently inferior, or to express indifference towards the sufferings of fellow citizens. And so instead of the woman screaming "Why should I pay for your health care?" we get a host of specious public-spirited arguments about the destruction that health care reform will inflict on us all, be they elderly Medicare beneficiaries or the middle-class mother of a disabled child.

Conservatives are hardly unique in reacting selfishly or self-righteously to political issues, or dressing up personal prejudices with public policy arguments; we all do that from time to time, and to one extent or another. But whether we are talking about gay marriage, government-backed mortgages, or health care reform, there may well be a strongly dynamic relationship right now between privately held feelings of strong disdain for the purported beneficiaries of Obama's agenda, and some of the wilder arguments being made publicly to attack it.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.

Click here to read a dissenting view from James Kirchick.

By Ed Kilgore