King Lear and Medicare Politics

Edwin Abbey, "Goneril and Regan"

In the 2010 elections, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein reports, seniors over 65 voted Republican “by an astounding 21 points — by far the biggest margin among any age group.”  Klein suspects that much of it was caused by dire warnings about the impact of Obamacare on Medicare, captured most colorfully by Sarah Palin when she contended that, in the interests of cost savings, Obama was advocating “death panels” that would decide whether seniors received certain treatments or not.

Don’t think the Democrats weren’t watching.  After House Republicans last week passed Paul Ryan’s plan to (among other things) privatize Medicare, it took Democrats only days to start airing a response.  Here is one of their ads:

Did you know Congressman Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) voted to end Medicare, forcing seniors to pay $12,500 for private health insurance, without guaranteed coverage? Tell Cravaack to keep his hands off our Medicare.”

“Take your hands off my Medicare” is a variation of a line shouted by an angry senior at a Tea Party rally: “Tell the government to keep its hands off my Medicare.” Demagoguery, in other words, cuts both ways.

It appears that a major strategy in the next election, as in the last one, will involve firing up seniors.  Frightened and angry old people can do a lot of damage.  Which brings us to King Lear.

Lear, of course, precipitates a series of events that culminates in a civil war and the death of his entire family.  I am convinced that Lear behaves as he does because he is afraid of dying.  Feeling the touch of mortality, he decides that he’d better insure that his children will take care of him. Knowing only autocratic methods, he subjects them to a love test: he will force his children to say they love him.

Then there is a follow-up test.  He will act like a teenager, carousing in their houses with his 100 knights, and they will indulge him, thereby demonstrating how much they love him.

Only they refuse to indulge him.  You don’t have to be a sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth thankless child to decide it’s time to lay down a few ground rules for dad when he’s carousing with his buddies in the basement apartment.

Of course Goneril and Regan, probably in revenge for how their father preferred Cordelia, don’t exactly establish boundaries in a nice way.  In fact, they intentionally humiliate Lear, prompting him to storm out of the house in a pouring rainstorm.

Hey, maybe there’s a political parable here.  Maybe Democrat Cordelia set up Medicare so that dad would be taken care of.  Then her GOP sisters were prepared to say anything in order to inherit the kingdom.  (“I gave you all,” Lear pleads, to which Regan replies, “And in good time you gave it.”)  Then it’s “Your choice, pops: the back bedroom with a curfew or out in the rain.  And good luck with finding an insurance company.”

Maybe Lear storms out of the house to vote Democratic.

Then again, maybe Lear with his 100 knights would have bankrupted all three daughters if he’d been allowed to have everything he wanted.  Some tough love is called for here.

The plot can be extended to our electoral politics.  The party of Reagan (excuse the pun) is squared off against the party of Cordelia in civil war and the losers are metaphorically hanged.  No compromises.  Furthermore, in the subsequent battle between Regan and Goneril we can imagine the struggle between establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans.  Which sister will succeed in poisoning the other?

Of course, all are losers in the end, which will be our own case if the older generation gets pitted against the younger generation.  As hard as it is for the parties to work together, some modifications will need to be made to bring down future medical costs.  There will have to be give and take on rationing, taxes, and other matters if Republicans and Democrats are to sing together “like birds in a cage.”

What are the odds of this happening?  I know that, right now, the prospect seems like “never, never, never, never, never.”    But the time will come when we will need to get real and stop yielding to ideological purists.  Or as Edgar puts it, “speak what we feel and not what we ought to say.”


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  1. Susan
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I’m not exactly sure how to read what is going on in the political wars , but I am intrigued by this comment: ” I am convinced that Lear behaves as he does because he is afraid of dying.”

    There’s an interesting paradox in making peace with dying (personally) and being entrusted with the welfare of others so that they won’t have premature or unnecessary deaths. The first, I guess is to realize that death is part of life, and not live in fear of it. The second is that life is part of life, and not to let go of it too easily, especially when you are charged with the care of those around you. I think too often we are not afraid of or even concerned by the death or distress of others, but scared to death of our own mortality -or even discomfort.

    As we’re in Holy week, it’s interesting to reflect on the hard-fought fearlessness of Jesus who believed his own death would be the source of life for the world.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    As usual you go to the heart of the issue, Sue. What I find so powerful about Lear is that he discovers, before he dies, that love is more powerful than death. His fears alienated his family, but accepting the love of Cordelia, and loving in return, gave him a deeper joy than he had ever experienced. Cordelia knew all along about real love, which is why she refused to play Lear’s games. Only her tough love approach, which leads to her destruction, would wake him up to learning that he was settling for a fraud rather than the real thing. If nothing is greater than love, then it is worth risking all for it, as Jesus also knew.

  3. Susan
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I love your last sentence, Robin. “If nothing is greater than love, then it is worth risking all for it.” It reminds me of those parables about selling all you have for the pearl of great price, etc. But I’ve never thought about the pearl or treasure being love. In the past I’ve just assumed it to be “eternal life”. But what’s life without love? This makes perfect sense to me.

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted April 21, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I came to this insight about Lear when thinking of my oldest son, Sue. I only had Justin for 21 years and Lear only has Cordelia–really has her–for 24 hours or so. But the play lets us know that it’s not the quantity of time but the quality that are important. Those 24 hours outweigh an entire life lived in narcissistic self-absorption. Lear understands what Faustus does not since Faustus too is offered God’s love at the end of a wasted life–but unlike Lear, Faustus cannot step out of his egotism and accept “the vial of precious grace.”

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Diigo Links (weekly) on April 24, 2011 at 3:30 am

    […] King Lear and Medicare Politics […]

  2. By Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care on May 31, 2011 at 1:02 am

    […] an April post last where I invoked getting King Lear, I […]


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