President Barack Obama signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, March 23, 2010.
The big political news of the week is the Affordable Care Act having secured approximately 7.1 million signups through its internet marketplace exchanges, after months of arduous problems on the federal website and years of heated opposition before its implementation. There are concerns about the number of young and healthy people who signed up, which will significantly determine the health insurance premiums people will pay next year, and about the number of people who have paid their first month’s premiums, which insurance companies (rightfully) deem as being covered.
It is a significant undertaking, and one I support on a general moral level, even if many (probably most) details of the gargantuan legislation often fly miles over my head — I all but guarantee they do the same to most of the talking heads at CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. But whether I’m happy about it or not does not matter, because in reality, we are currently lacking in key information — because its implementation has not even been completed yet — to accurately determine the ACA’s efficacy as a functioning part of American social policy. Only in the coming months and years will we be able to quantify the ways it helps, hurts, or stays neutral in Americans’ lives. Maybe it will explode the federal budget to unsustainable levels and severely hamper the job market, but based on the Congressional Budget Office’s report and subsequent analysis on the matter, I doubt it. It’s possible, if highly unlikely, the report has flaws, and the law as it stands could fail, at which point other options — the longstanding liberal preference of single-payer, “Medicare for all” healthcare or any number of the Republican options they themselves cannot choose as their alternative — must be considered.
What really concerns me about all this from a cultural critical perspective (which this site aspires to be), is the way this law, a bastion of uncertainty but with much positive society-altering projection to its merit, is placed by its opponents in reductive, confusing, competing narratives of totalitarian tyranny and governmental incompetence without the supporting details discussed above. The vast majority of the rancor around the law has been based entirely in ideology, much of which is not playing fair. Case in point: this campaign ad for Will Brooke, currently running for Alabama’s sixth congressional district.
My education is not in political science, but in communication, particularly the visual and aural elements that accompany film criticism. So let’s take a semiotic approach to analyzing this ad, which takes the “dog whistle” idea to unsettling and fundamentally confounding places.
Brooke’s “two important issues,” the second amendment and “see[ing] how much damage we can do to this [pictured] copy of Obamacare,” are in no way connected as pieces of policy. But being as though President Obama is considered in conservative circles to be wholly against the second amendment they champion (he is not on record as saying any such thing, though he has proposed certain gun control measures), Brooke’s idea is to marry a rebellion against that perception by literally taking up arms against the government, in the form of the printed out ACA. He packs his robust arsenal, the ACA copy, and some other tools in his pickup truck, adorned with a bumper sticker that says, “I prefer the dangers of a limited government!” while soothing acoustic guitars and banjos play an ambling tune.
This strongly projects Brooke’s bonafides as a man of the people from his region. He drives a pickup truck, ubiquitous in the south for people who must haul large quantities of equipment for farming, construction, and other jobs booming in the region. However, Brooke is a businessman from the Birmingham metropolitan area, not the type of man who requires a truck; this kind of pandering, though, is standard fare for all political campaigns and not particularly egregious. The bumper sticker implies President Obama, whose ACA support (recall: he didn’t write the bill, Congress did) is the only explicitly mentioned part of the ad, is directly threatening Alabama citizens. The government Brooke considers ideal is not only better for them than Obama’s vision, it’s actively trying to protect them from his advances.
Nothing to this point of the ad is especially outstanding for being provocative. I consider it wrongheaded and an unfair approximation of the president (with nary a mention of the Democrat he will trounce in the November election, the only person he should care about in the race), but not really worrisome, either.
It’s what happens next that concerns me about the unhealthy quality of rhetoric involved in our current politics. Brooke drives to a secluded field in the woods and constructs a coffin/effigy for his ACA copy, which he places with utmost care inside. He returns to his arsenal — at least three rifles, an assault weapon, and a handgun — several yards away, at which point he opens fire at his legislative target with progressively larger weapons, a look of utter seriousness and determination on his face. Several cuts show him assaying the damage between taking slow motion shots. He checks how deep the bullets travel through the (admittedly huge) ream of lawmaking; the disappointment on his face would be silly if it weren’t unsettling. This is blatantly inflammatory and the invocation of violence against something you disagree with is far from a healthy message to send to people. Furthermore, Brooke is aggressively against a body to which he is working hard — and spending plenty of money — to join; this cognitive dissonance is inconsistent at best and intentionally intellectually dishonest at worst.
It’s important to note that Brooke talks about the “fun” of this at the beginning and end of the video, because it gives him plausible deniability of his intentions. But saying “I was just kidding” or “I didn’t mean any harm” is undercut by the filmmaking techniques on display. The slow motion bullet casings falling from the chamber recall action movies of all stripes, in which we root for the person at the center of the slowed exploits. He props himself up as a defender of humanity versus the tyranny of centralized government, with Obama its figurehead. By asking for votes, he is inviting people to join his cause and arm themselves against the enemy in charge.
Does Will Brooke actually want to overthrow the government? I doubt it. He wants to cause a stir (kudos, because look at my reaction) and get a seat at the table where he will feel important, just like all politicians. But what we say, and especially what we show, matters. Humans are visual creatures, and we pick up subliminal (and in this case, blatant) clues about messaging and intention. When we start from a place of unfairness and outrageousness, it pollutes the actual message. Brooke disagrees with the president’s signature achievement, but the way he handles it is counterproductive to his goal by painting him as an immature reactionary lashing out at a confusing, unfair world. He could indicate a measured skepticism about the harm the ACA is doing to Americans. He would be wrong because of what I mentioned above, but it’s a valid point worth grappling with.
At the end of the ad, the camera tracks Brooke, a visage of resolute defeat, ready to return to fight again. “Well, we had some fun and we knocked some holes in it, but we didn’t quite get the job done,” he says to the camera. Big government remains oppressive to downtrodden Alabamans like Brooke, but he has a plan: “resort to more extreme measures” than, again, literally shooting at stand-ins for the federal government in order to “get rid of Obamacare and replace it with a market-based solution,” he says as he tosses the bill into a wood chipper; it shoots everywhere, probably in a nod to how much environmentalists hate polluting.
Yes, the only detail Brooke gives about what he wants is “a market-based solution” to our healthcare problem, which is a fine goal. That’s why it has already been accomplished by the thing he shot full of bullets. The entire basis of the Affordable Care Act is to eventually expand insurance coverage to 46 million Americans who did not have it when President Obama took office. It goes about this through a series of regulations, taxes, subsidies, and Medicaid expansion in order to provide the health insurance industry with an inflated customer base like none they have seen before. We have the market-based solution on our hands, and those on Brooke’s side have proposed other versions of the same thing, but which will cover fewer people at a similar cost to what the ACA currently does. The only other option is to go single-payer, which would dismantle the health insurance market in order to cover everyone through a Medicare-style system. Brooke’s argument falls apart under the slightest scrutiny in this event. Without explaining anything beyond vague tributes to “the market,” he gets to appear as if he has a well-considered approach to healthcare reform without highlighting the significant similarities such a proposal would have with the hated Obamacare and all its tyranny.
Now, it’s important to examine why this perception exists. I don’t think it’s irresponsible to suggest the biggest part of it might be the old politics-as-sports gambit. Conservatives want their favorite team to win. I have been known to go on tirades about how terrible the St. Louis Cardinals are, when in fact they’re the model MLB franchise and this Chicago Cubs fan is jealous. They win and my team hasn’t in a long, long time. It’s the same thing for Republicans now, although the “long, long time” for them is only the five and a half years 24-hour news has made the Obama era seem to them. Since George W. Bush left the White House, the Democrats have won more fights and the Republicans have split into different, sometimes opposing factions about where they want to go. They’re frustrated about what’s happened in the meantime — a veritable revolution for same sex marriage rights, rapidly changing demographics, a coming wave of marijuana legalization piggybacking on the historic votes in Washington and Colorado — and they haven’t handled their reactions with much maturity or grace. It hasn’t helped that the Democrats in vogue have spent more time calling them homophobic, racist bigots than actually working to convince them of these societal changes’ benefits; or worse, demonizing them as cynical, “too little, too late” flip floppers if they do come around to any aspects of the liberal agenda. For a disconcerting number of people, that’s true, but probably nowhere near the 100 percent of GOP voters and legislators Salon.com’s columnists (and every single Democratic fundraising email I get) would have you believe. And so, the urge to spite becomes irresistible. Opportunists like Brooke take outlandish positions in order to say, “I’ll show them!” and the other Republicans go along because these opportunists are what bring attention and, for now, votes. I highly doubt they’ll “win” this petty-off in the long run (i.e. the presidency in 2016), but this year will likely go their way.
Which leads us to the Affordable Care Act, the largest change to American social policy since 1965. It’s a giant target, and they have thrown everything at it. But what is most important to remember about this act is it is not an act of totalitarianism. It’s unruly, messy, features an amount of crony capitalism that makes people reasonably uncomfortable, it raises premiums on some people while others get breaks (there’s that jealousy again), and it raises some taxes. And people don’t like taxes, especially Republican people. They represent a loss of economic liberty (“You mean I can’t do whatever I want with my money?”), but they’re really just an inconvenience in order to provide things for the rest of society. Of course, they can and have gone overboard (70 percent as the highest income tax rate during the 1960s and ’70s was probably a bit much, especially after the wind down of the Vietnam war), but today’s rate of 39.6 percent for the absolute richest people — who have myriad ways to get breaks available through write-offs — is not particularly horrendous in comparison to other advanced countries. Yes, there are other tax obligations that can complicate things, but 40 percent of someone making tens of millions a year still leaves behind an absurd amount of money.
That’s a point well worth hammering home whenever someone complains about the oppressiveness of Obamacare based on the taxes. The argument goes, “Why should people get something they can’t afford by themselves?” Because they’re human beings trying to get medicine, not trying to buy a Lamborghini. Besides, the old way of doing things — uninsured sick people going to emergency rooms — still dipped into the pockets of those more well off. Thus, your tax dollars go to the front end of that in an attempt to get these people preventive care, which is far cheaper than disastrous ER visits. It’s a pain in the ass, not someone holding a gun to your head to do something evil.