The Surreal Semiotics of Burning Obamacare Draft Cards

A conservative campaign both pays tribute to and mockingly appropriates a treasured image in left-wing history.
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A protestor holds aloft his burning draft card at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington during a demonstration on January 10, 1967.(Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press)

Today, the House of Representatives voted for the 40th (seriously) time to repeal Obamacare. The measure passed 232-185 -- an unusually successful result for House bills these days, though it's utterly futile, since the Democratic-led Senate won't take it up, and President Obama wouldn't sign it anyway.

Meanwhile, there are other campaigns against the health-insurance overhaul that stand a greater chance of success (if only marginally so). One of them is a push to get young people to boycott health-insurance exchanges. My colleague Garance Franke-Ruta explains the mechanism clearly here, but in short, the exchanges assume a large pool of young, healthy people to make up for and subsidize older, less healthy ones. So conservative activists are aiming for that soft spot, trying to keep young folks out of the pool, though the number of refuseniks would have to be very high to be effective.

One way the activists are conducting the campaign, as reported by Sarah Kliff and Alex Seitz-Wald, is fascinating, though: FreedomWorks is asking youths to burn their Obamacare draft cards.

Now, there's no such thing as an Obamacare draft card. But that's not the point -- some folks are making and printing out mock draft cards, and the Washington Times has an artist's rendering as well.

This is an ingenious cultural appropriation. On the one hand, FreedomWorks is drawing a pointed link between protests against the Vietnam-era draft -- a hated government program that depended on forcing the country's young to sign up for something not in their best interests -- and the Affordable Care Act, a hated government program that depends on forcing the country's young to sign up for something that's (arguably) not in their best interests. There are, to be sure, some pretty serious differences: The war killed young people, while the insurance might cost them a bit more but will help them in the case of injury or illness. Another crucial difference is that it's not illegal to burn a mock draft card, nor is it illegal to refuse to sign up for the exchanges (as long as you pay the required fine).

But there's a smirk behind it all too. FreedomWorks is taking a treasured image of the anti-war left, the high-water mark of American progressive political action, and seeking to make it the right's own. In doing so -- though it would surely make the free-market loving capitalists at FreedomWorks cringe to hear it -- they're proving that in one respect, at least, Marx was right: History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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