We are a divided country, but that division is as old as it is deep. The first battle in this never-ending policy war was in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson presented the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress. Rather than describing their cause as a rebellion of one group of elites (landed colonists) against another (Britain’s monarchy and Parliament), Jefferson described it in terms of human rights—as the quest for a society where everyone is seen as equally human. In his immortal words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Jefferson realized that it made no sense to base a new nation on the principle of “liberty and equality for all” as long as some its people were enslaved by others, so the first draft of the Declaration also renounced slavery. Jefferson accused King George of waging a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Southern delegates representing the interests of slave-holders aligned with northern delegates representing the interests of slave-trading merchants, and together they succeeded in excluding Jefferson’s original language from the Declaration. Their motivation was obvious: eliminating slavery would diminish their wealth. They held up the vote for independence until they got their way.
But the phrase “all men are created equal” remained, and debate about its meaning has dominated American politics ever since. Every effort to broaden the scope of “all men” and promote real equality has caused a major backlash on the part of those who feel their rights are being impinged upon whenever privilege is threatened. Each time an elite, whose advantages often entail a disadvantage for someone else, promises to disrupt everything unless their interests are protected. This method of obstruction works only if the elite is able to persuade large numbers of the nonelite that their own well-being depends on preserving the elite's privileges. So the small landed aristocracy in the South convinced thousands to fight and die to preserve “their way of life” in the Civil War. And so today a few billionaires have convinced millions of Tea Party activists that a health-care-reform law that works mainly by extending private insurance to the uninsured amounts to socialism—or even what the Declaration calls “absolute Despotism.”
The same small group of elites have taken advantage of public ignorance and insecurity to con millions of people into believing that global warming is a hoax; that government spending hurts the economy; that high tax rates are discouraging work and reducing economic growth; that unemployment compensation is what’s causing our high unemployment rate; that the poor aren’t really poor because many of them have smartphones and flat-screen TVs; that food stamps encourage laziness and dependency; that Social Security is going bankrupt; and that the financial crisis was caused by the government forcing banks to lend money to poor people.
What all these claims have in common—besides being false—is that they are all arguments meant to block policies that take the phrase “all men are created equal” seriously by actually promoting equality. They are all designed to protect the privileges of the elite by convincing the masses that they will lose out if the government does more to help the underprivileged. And so we hear, again and again, that “Obamacare” will hurt those who already have health insurance and force young people to buy insurance even though they may not need it and can’t really afford it. We do not hear that the Affordable Care Act could cut into the profit margins of some very profitable industries, but that is what really worries the law’s privileged opponents. Saying we cannot afford to provide decent health care to everyone as a right of citizenship (something every other rich country does) is really saying that not everyone’s health is of equal importance in this country. Closing down the government and threatening to default on government bonds in an effort to repeal or delay the Affordable Care Act is just the latest campaign in a 237-year-old war over the meaning of equality in a country founded on it.
This is not to say that the Affordable Care Act is itself an ideal vehicle for advancing the cause of equality. A single-payer system would have been far more egalitarian, as well as far more efficient. (Americans pay more for health care than every other rich country, and have worse health outcomes to show for it. Not coincidentally, most other rich countries have some kind of universal health-care system.) Obama based his health-care proposal on ideas first introduced by Republicans, and he ignored liberal demands for a public option.
But even if conservatives are being disingenuous or hysterical when they describe the Affordable Care Act as socialism, the law is at least a step toward greater equality—maybe the biggest step Washington could take at this moment in our country’s history. And who knows, this step may well lead to others later on, which is one reason the guardians of the status quo are so worried about it. Concede that any American who needs health care should get it and you have already denied the main premise of our various health-care industries: that health care is a commodity like any other, to be sold to whoever can afford it rather than distributed according to need. The GOP, whose main priority is the preservation of wealth and the privileges wealth confers, is worried that the Affordable Care Act, once implemented, will become as popular and successful as Social Security and Medicare, two other programs that made good on our country’s commitment to equality. The party of privilege fought tooth and nail against those programs too.
Charles Michael Andres Clark is a senior fellow at the Vincentian Center for Church and Society and professor of economics at St. John’s University in New York.