During the Tea Party’s heyday, you could find variations of the ‘Keep Your Government Hands Off My Welfare State’ sign at rallies around the US. My favourite was a handmade version by a woman who had written out her slogan in black marker and then added, in red, a hammer and sickle to symbolize the peril of socialized medicine. The placard read: ‘Government Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare.’
Ideology and reality had been set on a collision course, and this absurd mash-up was the result.
Struggle as it might, the reality that Medicare – America’s government-run health insurance – is one of the nation’s largest (and most popular) public programmes could not overcome the rightwing imperative to hate the state. Sometimes, it seems, keeping hate alive means making tough sacrifices in the realm of logic.
The Tea Party’s visibility has diminished significantly since 2009. However, the disconnect between popular perceptions of US government and its actual function endures.
In February, the New York Times published an article entitled ‘Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It’. Several accompanying maps showed that some areas which rely heavily on public programmes – for example, Owsley County, Kentucky, where per capita payments for food stamps are the highest in the country – vote overwhelmingly for conservative Republicans who vow to slash social spending. Other studies show that deeply conservative Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee are among the places where residents, on average, get the highest percentage of their income from government supports.
Of course, there is a fine tradition of allowing one’s behaviour and professed beliefs to go their separate ways: Bible-belt states whose residents claim to promote chastity and ‘family values’ have higher rates of divorce – not to mention higher numbers of online porn subscriptions – than supposed Gomorrahs like New York and California.
But why would healthcare-loving conservatives risk self-injury by embracing anti-government animus?
For one, when people talk about making cuts, they do not picture themselves in their mental community of deadbeats. In his response to the safety net report, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman cited Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, whose research shows that ‘44 per cent of Social Security recipients, 43 per cent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 per cent of those on Medicare say that they “have not used a government programme”.’
These people are thinking of cutting services for others – like immigrants, who in fact account for only a small portion of government spending.
Yet, as The Economist notes, in other countries appeals from anti-immigrant populists (think Le Pen’s National Front in France) include a strong defence of state entitlement programmes. The commitment to the ideal – if not the practice – of determined self-sufficiency is distinctly American. And it’s intensifying at an odd moment.
Contrary to Tea Party belief, most of the growth in government programmes has come not because President Obama has boldly expanded benefits. Rather, amid a historic economic downturn, more people have needed these supports. Just when the safety net is doing precisely what it should, conservative leaders denounce a system run amok.
In doing so, they encourage a misplacement of resentment. Business has taken the American denial of mutual support straight to the bank. As economist Dean Baker points out, the failure of working people to gain from productivity increases is a far greater financial burden than anything government levies in taxes. Productivity has grown more than 80 per cent since 1979, with nothing close to a commensurate increase in wages.
Early in the economic recovery, the distribution of benefits has been even worse. In 2010, America’s top 1 per cent claimed 93 per cent of all income gains. Income for the great bulk of citizens actually decreased.
Engrossing people in the tailchasing fight to keep government out of government is a brilliant means of distracting from this situation. Sadly for those who join the battle, winning could mean destroying the very social programmes they depend upon for survival.