Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Leader of the Tea Party Caucus

It was a moment, from waaay back during the last presidential election, that stuck with me.  Lord knows if I can exactly place it, but I think it was in one of the debates between Obama and Romney.  In discussing the Affordable Care Act, Obama noted that it was often called "Obamacare," and then didn't walk away from that or resist that term.

"I've kind of grown fond of that," he said, or words something to that effect.

Hey, I'm getting older.  My cortex only has so many new things it can hold on to.

But that struck me, at that moment, as a very odd thing.  Enough so that it stuck, and resurfaces now.

Why?  Because Barack Obama was a student and a teacher of the organizing techniques of Saul Alinsky.  In Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, one of the core principles he articulates to radicalize and motivate is personalizing an issue.  If you want to get human beings riled up about something, you need to tie an issue to your attitudes towards an individual.  Find an enemy, a name and a face, and allow that enemy to become the face of the thing you seek to subvert or oppose.

If you can do that, you automatically escalate the sense of conflict.  Anyone who's worked in conflict resolution knows the truth of Alinsky's observation.  When people stop seeing things as problems to approach pragmatically, and get personally engaged in an ego-driven conflict, the heat goes waaaay up.

That's why the name "Obamacare" exists.  It's a fundamentally Alinskian tactic, used as a motivational tool to stir up heat among the lumpenproletariat who drive the Tea Party...which is, to my eyes, mostly organized on Alinskian principles of creating change.

Yet for reasons that fuddle me, there's not been aggressive pushback against the use of that term to describe the Affordable Care Act.  There's the occasional wan reminder that the basic idea was promoted by the Heritage Foundation as a market-based alternative to a rest-of-the-first-world-style single-payer universal health care system.   That's the reason conservatism has no alternative to the ACA.  It is a conservative idea, which they're now attacking.  Nominally, that's to insure that our *cough* health care "system" *cough* is left as the perfect beacon of perfection that we all know it to be.  But really?  It's personal.

So here we have Obama embracing something that he knows is being used to energize and motivate opponents.   He knows it, as surely as he knows Alinsky.  And I wonder, frankly, if he knows it well enough to be playing something of a gambit.

If a conflict escalates far enough, as things plainly have here inside the Beltway, a group can completely lose sight of anything other than the annihilation of their opponent.  It's a classic Level Five. Everything becomes defined in terms of that conflict.  All data that does not support the conflict is ignored.  It becomes a form of madness.  I've been there, in churches that have been so driven by division that they've gone basically insane, obsessed with dramas and battles that only have meaning to them.

It's an ugly place...and an undesirable one.  For a group that's driven into that position in a conflict, it's also radically unattractive, visibly insane to a disinterested party.  It alienates others and isolates the community in question, which has become so target-fixated that they're oblivious to the damage they're doing to themselves, and the impact they're having on their relationship with the broader culture.

It's a cliff.  It's a box canyon.  It's a trap.

And I think Barack Obama knows that.