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Town Hall Lunacy Includes Outraged Calls to 'Keep Government Out of Medicare,' When Medicare Is Government

Some can't reconcile what they believe about the propaganda that is fed to them with their own positive experiences with public programs like Medicare.

As the health care discussion has descended from contentious to surreal, there is perhaps one message that encapsulates better than any other the incoherence of those expressions of rage seen at town hall meetings across the country: "Keep government out of my Medicare!"

The rallying cry has been heard again and again as lawmakers have returned home to discuss health reform during the summer recess.

In South Carolina, an enraged constituent told Republican Rep. Bob Inglis to "keep your government hands off my Medicare!"; a woman reportedly sent a letter to the White House stating in no uncertain terms, "I don't want government-run health care, I don't want socialized medicine and don't touch my Medicare." Slate's Timothy Noah put out an open invitation for readers to submit more examples of this kind of confusion.

The incoherence isn't limited to the low-information rubes turning out at town halls either. Supply-side, "voodoo economist" Arthur Laffer cautioned during a recent interview on CNN, "If you like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles, and you think they're run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid and health care done by the government." And in a wildly convoluted interview on Fox News this week, RNC Chairman Michael Steele argued simultaneously that Medicare is an inefficient, deeply flawed program that must be protected at all costs.

The outrage is a perfect picture of right-populism, argues Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing movements. "The town meeting confrontations over health care are an example of right-wing populist protests that periodically sweep across the United States," he says. "The anger, fear and resentment are often mobilized by cynical political elites as part of an orchestrated response."

Many observing these debates from abroad have probably concluded that we, as a nation, have finally gone completely mad. And it's hard to argue otherwise.

How sane could be a polity that sits by with relative complacence when its leaders launch devastating and groundless invasions of foreign lands but approach a full-on rebellion when those leaders make some modest moves to deliver decent health care at a price people can afford?

And how could these people be so divorced from the dynamics of their own health care that they don't appear to understand that the Medicare they value so highly is very much a government-run health care program?

The most frequent answer from liberals is that these people are simply uneducated buffoons who listen to too much Rush Limbaugh, an argument that's not without merit.

But historian Rick Perlstein thinks that the statement reflects, at least in part, zero-sum thinking among one of the few groups of Americans whose health care is guaranteed by the government.

"It's almost like: 'I got mine and screw you.' People think that any expansion of the [public] health care pie means that their slice will get smaller," he told me.

Perhaps a more straightforward explanation can be found in the psychological literature.

In their 1950 classic, The Authoritarian Personality, UCLA psychologists Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford identified a cluster of traits that they argued were inherent in the conservative worldview, including a fierce protectiveness of the status quo, a tendency to lash out at opponents, an embrace of stereotypes and cynicism.

All are traits that have been on display in abundance as conservatives lash out at lawmakers for what they believe, erroneously, to be in the health care bill.

More recently, Bob Altemeyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, added to the literature with his model of " right-wing authoritarianism." Drawing on years of empirical research, Altemeyer found that the right-wing authoritarian personality is "almost totally uninfluenced by reasoning and evidence."

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