the national interest

How Obamacare Violates the Conservative Cleanliness Fetish

A Tea-Party supporter protest outside the US Supreme Court on the third day of oral arguments over the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on March 28, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

The right’s pathological hatred of Obamacare is a phenomenon liberals have struggled to grasp. Rational explanations — philosophical opposition to the expansion of the welfare state, the reinforcing certainty of a news cocoon, reflexive partisanship — only go so far. The indefatigably rabid opposition to what is merely a more fiscally responsible version of the plan Mitt Romney ran on in 2008, and the refusal to reconsider in the face of an endless string of failed predictions of failure, is a force of nature.

Linda Greenhouse unearthed a finding that adds to our understanding of this peculiar phenomenon. She finds Michael Greve, chairman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, a fellow conservative think tank, in 2010. Greve declared:

This bastard has to be killed as a matter of political hygiene. I do not care how this is done, whether it’s dismembered, whether we drive a stake through its heart, whether we tar and feather it and drive it out of town, whether we strangle it. I don’t care who does it, whether it’s some court some place, or the United States Congress.

Greve is expressing a completely typical determination to destroy the law by absolutely any political, legislative, or judicial means available. But the interesting phrase here is “political hygiene.” It’s a somewhat unusual formulation. George Will used versions of it twice to justify impeachment, another conservative crusade that seemed to defy rational understanding. “Impeachment is not a “constitutional crisis”; it is a remedial mechanism provided for political hygiene,” Will wrote at one point in 1998. The purpose of impeachment is not punishment. It is civic hygiene, the health of the Republic,” he wrote at another.

Tell me, doctor, where does this political obsession with hygiene come from? Actually, one of the sturdiest findings of political psychology holds that conservatives have stronger feelings of disgust than do liberals. As John Hibbing points out, “Conservatives are more likely to have a physiological response and to devote more attention to disgusting things (which can carry pathogens) and to threatening things.” People more sensitive to disgust are more likely to have right-wing views, and triggering reactions of disgust makes people more right wing. The bedrooms of conservative college students are more likely to contain cleaning supplies.

The connection between impeachment and the hygenic impulse is fairly straightforward. The impulse also helps explain the primal character of the right’s Obamacare hate — its obsession with “full repeal,” a way of conceiving the issue that transcends any specific analysis of policy and instead calls to mind the expunging of a toxin. It is obviously important not to pathologize opposing views as a substitute for taking their claims at face value. (Some of us do the latter in endless, tiresome detail.) But there are times when the arguments themselves fail to fully explain a side’s behavior.

But it also grew obvious long ago that no real-world results can actually blunt the force of the conservative movement’s disdain for Obamacare. It has triggered a deep-seated revulsion, lodged itself in the right-wing brain as something unclear and impure, in a way that no set of metrics can heal.

Obamacare and the Right’s Cleanliness Fetish