The long New York Times story on Sunday about opponents of government handouts living off of those handouts has generated plenty of discussion, including renewed attention to the fact that red states tend to be net recipients of government aid, while blue states tend to be net contributors. The story focused on a handful of individuals in Chisago, Minn., a virtually all-white county, described as safe and characterized as family-oriented and hard-working, in which government dependency was high but in which people seemed well-intentioned and genuinely conflicted about their reliance on government. It did a nice job of using the individual anecdotes to catalog the myriad ways in which government aid keeps families from serious suffering. It showed some welcome sensitivity to some of the mixed feelings, even guilt, that some of these folks experience in explaining their dependence on government assistance and their fervent wish that they could make it on their own. Though the GOP has made a point of heaping contempt on those who have struggled to pay the bills, most ordinary folks have natural sympathy for people who are trying and struggling to provide for their families and the article provided an ultimately sympathetic portrait of what it means to live in such circumstances.
On a human level, that's welcome. But as is too often true of Times reporting, the political context in which the subject matter was explored was weak. Among other lapses and perhaps in an effort to be polite and careful, the story neglected to note the degree to which the phenomenon it observed -- dependent Americans decrying dependency -- underscores the central role that hypocrisy and worse play in contemporary Republican ideology. There's a partisan story here that the Times avoids telling.
In a quite straightforward sense, insisting that government stop providing people with assistance, ranging from medical care, to subsidized lunches and disability insurance, while you yourself depend on it as a lifeline, is as straightforward an instance of hypocrisy as one can find. Requiring others to live by a moral code which you believe yourself ultimately to be exempt would appear, in fact, to be a textbook case. Of course, several of the articles' subjects insisted that they wished they didn't have to nurse from the government's teat. That's an understandable feeling and one that, one presumes, most people in such circumstances feel. But some of the instances of apparent hypocrisy in the piece are bracing. One of the featured subjects in the article actively and aggressively worked for a candidate for Congress -- Chip Cravaack -- who was motivated to run for office because of his anger at President Obama's proposed health care reform (Cravaack succeeded in ousting long-time Democratic incumbent James Oberstar in 2010). According to the piece, that same individual has had his family's bacon saved by government-provided health care.
More insidious than this top soil of hypocrisy is what is all too often gurgling beneath the surface -- the stoking by party leaders of the ugly sentiment that the real problem with government aid is that it helps certain types of people who don't deserve that help. As former GOP staffer Mike Lofgren put it last fall in his lucid and incisive take-down of reining Republican orthodoxy, if you "don't look, think, or talk like the GOP base," you don't deserve the privileges to which "real Americans" are entitled. The contemporary GOP is more flexible in its demonization than it once was. African Americans were once the primary face of pathology in conservative ideology. Nowadays, gays, Muslims, undocumented immigrants (or those presumed to be) -- anybody who represents the possibility of change and uncertainty -- can be useful in mobilizing the politics of hate and contempt. In an interesting twist on this generally more ecumenical approach to vilification of the already-marginalized, major GOP presidential candidates seem intent on rehabilitating blacks as a usable object for such purposes, perhaps because of the party base's hatred of Obama and because they've more or less stopped trying to win black votes. Newt Gingrich has done this on numerous occasions during the current campaign cycle and Rick Santorum most notably did this in Iowa in January. In the midst of a long disquisition on the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States and the plot by President Obama to make more and more people dependent on government, Santorum said, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families." He had not been specifically asked about blacks and he was speaking in Iowa, a state whose population is less than four percent African American and one in which -- though blacks are over-represented on government assistance rolls -- the vast majority of individuals on public assistance are white. The Times piece on Chisago noted that folks like Santorum have made an issue of government dependency. But its failure to note the clear context in which Santorum and other GOP leaders have frequently raised the issue leaves the false impression that generic dependency is the sum total of the party's complaint about government assistance and its intent in raising it.
Even if Santorum, for example, generally manages to avoid letting his more uncomfortable feelings show most of the time (and his embarrassing explanation that he said "blah people" in Iowa only highlights the suppressed sentiments), the message about dependency isn't merely an abstract concern. Nor is it primarily a story about fiscal rectitude, about which the GOP has a shameless record (to clarify, it is possible, of course, to be genuinely concerned with deficits, though the threat they pose to America's future tends to be massively over-stated. But it's not possible to take the contemporary GOP at face value on the issue, given its record on the issue). It's about dividing Americans in the most visceral way possible. On one side are the undeserving who deserve only our contempt, the cold shoulder and the back of our hand and on the other those who, try though they might, need a hand up to get them through difficult times and whose struggles should be treated with concern and humanity. There's no larger principle here. Just a gut-level insistence that the deserving - who look and sound and act a certain way -- are entitled to that which the undeserving are not.
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