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A victory as transcendent as that of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s is a rare and marvelous thing. It’s understandable that liberals want to wrap health-care reform in garments ripped from that glorious movement.
When black congressmen were allegedly abused by a crowd of tea-party protesters outside of the U.S. Capitol, Democrats harkened back to the outrages of the 1960s. When Pres. Barack Obama made his final push for the bill, he invoked historic civil-rights legislation. When Democrats celebrate the bill, they put it in the context of the civil-rights era’s expansion of freedoms. And when they denounce the bill’s opponents, they compare them to segregationists.
Democrats view the fight for health-care reform through the prism of classic, black-and-white civil-rights footage, with a background track of freedom songs. In homage to those days, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi marched arm-in-arm with other congressional leaders into the Capitol on the day of the vote. To paraphrase Marx, this is history repeating itself, first as triumph, then as tinny echo.
One of the congressmen who says he was called names outside the Capitol is civil-rights hero John Lewis (although no videos captured anything untoward). That guaranteed comparisons to the famous 1965 march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in which Lewis was badly beaten. The congressman made the comparison himself, saying he hadn’t “heard anything like this in 40, 45 years. Since the march to Selma, really.”
But if the Selma marchers had only encountered a few stray epithets, it wouldn’t be known as “Bloody Sunday.” On that day, marchers were trampled, gassed, and attacked with truncheons — by the police. It takes a clinical lack of proportion to draw a parallel between a mass beating of peaceful protesters and some repulsive cretins shouting the N-word.
But Democrats can’t help themselves. Rep. James Clyburn, another former civil-rights activist, said the alleged name-calling “demonstrated that this is not about health care. It is about trying to extend a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful.” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, another African American who maintains he was the object of invective, released a statement declaring, “Our nation has a history of struggling each time we expand rights.”
This, too, abuses history. The civil-rights movement was about freedom, and securing the most basic rights — to vote and to gain equal access to public accommodations. Expanding Medicaid and subsidizing the purchase of health insurance — the main means of covering more of the uninsured in the health-care bill — aren’t in the same category. They extend government benefits, not freedom. They don’t fulfill the promise of the Constitution or give equal rights to a historically excluded group. They represent a contestable policy choice that should be judged on its costs and benefits. Martin Luther King Jr. may have been right to say that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, but it needn’t bend toward a budget-busting health-care reform likely to fail on its own terms.
The genius of King’s nonviolence was its persuasive power. He knew that the example of demonstrators putting their bodies on the line and not fighting back against their attackers would win the battle for the nation’s hearts and minds, eventually even in the South, even among the haters. Miraculously, he was right.
Supporters of health-care reform invoke his movement now precisely because of their inability to persuade. Accusing the bill’s critics of racism and comparing them to the segregationist mobs of the 1960s is about silencing and delegitimizing them. It expropriates the unquestioned moral authority of the civil-rights movement and then uses it as a political bludgeon. It substitutes rhetorical thuggery for argument.
Health-care reform didn’t arise from a grassroots movement that catalyzed the nation with its sacrificial love, nor can it lay claim, like King’s protesters, to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s a ramshackle mess cobbled together by an embattled, highly ideological congressional majority. No wonder it needs reflected glory and borrowed moral power.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.