There certainly is an argument over government finances under way… it isn’t about spending or taxes. It’s an argument about race and national identity. It hasn’t really been about fiscal policy for decades. Any democratic system of wealth transfer relies on a sense of social solidarity. During the post-WWII boom, Jim Crow laws insured that African-Americans were under-represented in the country’s political life. This allowed a thin version of national solidarity to take hold. This version envisioned a white nuclear family, which in turn, undergirded Social Security and progressive tax rates. White people could hold to the basic assumption that redistributed wealth flowed mostly to fellow whites who might be “slightly poorer than themselves”.
Then, came the civil rights movement, voting rights for minorities, and integration of the public sphere. This produced white flight from the nation’s cities and from the public school system, in both the north and the south. Many resisted the racial integration imposed by the federal courts. Instead of money being distributed to white nuclear families, these dissenters saw money flowing to “shiftless” blacks and immigrant Hispanics. For those who resist these changes in the national life, their understanding of the basic compact of citizenship is being threatened. In this new atmosphere, the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, in 1965, would be the last welfare initiatives until the passage of Obamacare half a century later.
Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts are irrational if viewed as a contribution to debate on sound economic policy. However, they make perfect sense as an expression of deep animosity towards the idea of a shared national life. Obama may have said when he took up his presidency that there were no black, white, or Hispanic Americans, just Americans with a shared destiny. Nevertheless, what if a large part of the voting population doesn’t see inclusion as a desirable goal? For politicians on the right, Obama’s vision threatens to drag people back into an integrated public space they’ve been trying to escape most of their political lives.
It would explain the re-alignment of the two political parties in this country, with the GOP taking over the conservative South and more or less abandoning that nation’s cities. A majority of whites voted against Obama last time around, and seem poised to do so again. As viewed through this lens, the efforts of conservative judges to limit social justice initiatives such as Affirmative Action, and to undermine the entire structure of Roosevelt’s New Deal, make perfect sense, as do GOP attempts to restrict the voting rights of minorities. It might even explain the GOP’s obsession with being belligerent overseas, for if you see your own identity group losing power over fellow citizens with darker complexions, it makes you feel better if you can hold sway over what are seen as “lesser breeds without the law”, as Rudyard Kipling put it, in foreign countries.
It also might explain all the efforts of commentators on the right to brand Obama as somehow un-American, as the proverbial “other”, either as a socialist, or even a communist, or an anti-colonialist Muslim. The New York Times recently editorialised against anti-Obama conspiracy theories, and efforts to discredit important but non-political institutions in our government, writing, “Mistrust of the most basic functions of government can destroy the basic compact of citizenship”.
However, a good portion of the population already believes that the basic compact of citizenship has been undermined, if not broken, by the politics of inclusion personified by Barack Obama. Some Republicans are aware that time is not on their side. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said, “The GOP isn’t generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term”.
20 October 2012
H D S Greenway