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Lies That Blind

Polls prior to President Obama’s recent address to Congress on health care showed that roughly half the people of the United States believed demonstrable lies about their own government. Some of the falsehoods outrage common sense, but they were and are believed.

Around 55 percent believe that a proposed health-care bill will give insurance coverage to illegal immigrants. In fact, there is specific language in the bill forbidding exactly that. About 50 percent believe that the government plans to use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions. Actually, current law bans federal funds from being used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life, and there are no plans to change that. Somewhat less than half the population believes that the proposed overhaul will bring about the government’s “complete” takeover of the health-care system. There are no such plans, neither in the White House nor in Congress. Astonishingly, almost half the citizens of the United States believe their government will coldly ration health care and set up “death panels” to decide when “to pull the plug on Grandma.” That last phrase is Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley’s contribution to the health-care debate.

A lot of these lies are spread by Republican “Tea Party” yahoos, those semi-paranoid folks with perpetual grievances, who turn up at political gatherings to detonate like jihadists. Congressman Barney Frank correctly characterized the speech of one of these people as “vile, contemptible nonsense.”

The most successful lying, though, is done at the higher levels of the Republican Party. For example, “death panels” were invented by charismatic Sarah Palin. House Minority Leader John Boehner claims that the Democratic health bill will ration health care. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas claims that health-care reform is a Democratic “power grab.” Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska asserts that taxpayer dollars would be used to pay for abortions. And so it goes.

These falsehoods are believed by so many citizens because the Republican Party has relentlessly attacked the concept of government itself. There is now such deep and widespread mistrust of government that almost half the populace will credit any lie, no matter what it is, so long as it confirms the belief that their government is stupid and evil.

Republicans, trapped in the sunny amber of ideology, still believe in unregulated free markets. It’s been just about a year since the world’s economy collapsed because underregulated financial institutions, working in unregulated markets, built a rickety skyscraper of rotten financial instruments. Surveying the wreckage of firms such as Citibank and Bank of America, brokerage houses like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, titanic insurance companies such as AIG, big manufacturers including Chrysler and General Motors, and thousands of smaller businesses, conservatives still insist that the free market will do the best job in overhauling our health-care system. The fact that our grotesquely inadequate health care is the product of the free market doesn’t matter to an ideologue.

When President Ronald Reagan famously said “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he wasn’t inventing a new principle. He was crystallizing, in a powerful phrase, the Republicans’ many different ways of objecting to government. It’s a measure of how successful earlier conservatives had been in promoting those ideas that even his opponents regarded the phrase as brilliant political rhetoric. No one saw it as bizarre.

But it is bizarre. Reagan said those words in his first inaugural address, and he wasn’t merely attacking Democrats in particular, nor bad bureaucrats in general. He used a phrase designed for an anarchist to assault the government of which he had just become president. It was self-evident to the founders of this nation that governments are instituted to secure certain God-given rights. But in the conservative view, that’s best left to private, for-profit business.

Reagan once wisecracked that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” At this moment, Republicans appear to have succeeded in demolishing the idea that our government can aid us by, say, providing the benefits to all citizens that are enjoyed by those insured by Medicare. Their decades-long assault on government and their recent paranoid lies about health-care proposals have created such mistrust that some citizens now fear for their children when the president of the United States urges them to attend school and study hard. We have lost far more than a health plan.

—Gene Mirabelli

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