House Republicans, in their bad-faith attempt to pretend they give a shit about the nation’s debt, are once again pushing the nation to the brink of financial catastrophe.
Forgetting how badly this blew up in their faces during the Obama years, Republicans are refusing to raise the country's debt ceiling in a futile attempt to force President Biden to the negotiating table, where Republicans want to discuss how to dismantle government programs designed to keep poor folks alive. For those unfamiliar, the debt ceiling is an anachronistic legislative device that essentially says we’ll pay the bills we’ve already promised to pay. Defaulting on the debt ceiling would destroy our economy and send international markets into free fall. Republicans know this but that won’t stop them from using this as a leverage point to pass their brutal plutocratic agenda.
More interesting than the all-too-commonplace Republican saber-rattling and posturing is what their demands are. Even as class dealignment rages on and Republicans hilariously claim to be the new “working people’s party,” they are going back to their one true love: Fucking over the poor. House Republicans have proposed, amongst other horrendous policies, work requirements for SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. Under their proposal, around 1.5 million people would lose their health insurance. This, of course, is by design. Arkansas, which recently implemented Medicaid work requirements, found many adults lost their insurance and the employment participation rate did not rise. Imagine that.
The point isn't to strengthen the labor market or ensure the social welfare state isn't being taken advantage of. The point isn't to “put people back to work”; the U.S. job participation rate is the highest it's been in 50 years. The point is to attack the social welfare state and make sure it helps as few people as possible, regardless of how many need it. For almost 100 years conservatives have attacked welfare with every legislative weapon available to them. They have intentionally made life less dignified for their constituents, and that effort continues today with the GOP's debt ceiling brinksmanship.
A Brief History of Conservatives Trying To Kill Welfare
This may seem strange to our modern sensibilities but for the majority of its history, the United States government played little to no role in providing for its citizens. Social welfare, to the extent that was a thing, mostly existed through charity and local patronage networks. Ran by political machines like Taminy Hall in New York, the bargain was basically this: We get your vote, you get some food, or if you're really lucky, a job. For the most part, though, life for the poor in the 18th and 19th centuries was really fucking hard. The tools necessary for the populace to demand more from their government simply didn't exist. That all changed with the rise of labor as an identifiable class and the coming of the Great Depression.
When the U.S. stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, the roaring 20s came to a screeching halt. The economy was in free fall and the Hoover administration was completely ill-equipped to do what was necessary to help people and stabilize the economy. In the following months, millions of Americans would be unemployed and immiserated, begging the government for food and housing. Hoover did not help them. Instead, handcuffed by ideological conviction and the prevailing theories of the time, the Hoover administration preached austerity and fiscal belt tightening that only worsened the economic apocalypse. This wasn't just callousness on Hoover’s part. The idea that the government could be used as a tool to lift people out of poverty was completely contradictory to their worldview. The result was a country steeped in poverty and crying out for a new deal.
Following the 1932 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt found himself facing a nation in crisis. The populace gave him an electoral mandate to do something, anything, to alleviate their suffering. FDR knew his choice of Labor secretary would be the most influential appointment of his presidency.
Enter Francis Perkins.
Perkins is an unsung hero of U.S. history. More than the nation’s first female cabinet member, she may be the most effective leftist activist and administrator in the history of our country. Born in Boston but radicalized in New York after witnessing the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire firsthand, Perkins would serve as Industrial Commissioner and help FDR turn New York into a laboratory for the country. What Perkins proposed to FDR would fundamentally change the relationship between the people and their government. Social Security, unemployment insurance, the eight-hour workday, minimum wage, workman’s comp, and federal laws against child labor were some of the proposals and accomplishments in Perkins’ storied career.
These staples of American life were unfathomable to the political and economic elite four years before. And the average Fox News viewer who today benefits immensely from these programs can take solace in the fact that the comfortable life they enjoy was brought to them by a lesbian socialist.
Even though FDR is widely considered to be the most economically progressive presidents we’ve ever had – mostly for good reason – he was not some raving leftist. Raised in a life of privilege and wealth, FDR did not run on radically changing the country. In fact, on the 1932 campaign trail, FDR ran heavily on the bad-faith argument of a balanced budget. FDR’s top political skill and his best quality was his ability to harness the nation’s collective will. Through a combination of the bully pulpit, natural charisma, and the willingness to execute the desires of the people, he was able to express the political will of labor, those immiserated by the nation's economic crisis, and the activists who staffed his administration.
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation," FDR once said. "It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” This quote perfectly exemplifies FDR’s approach to politics.
Unrestrained by ideology, he was willing to try something. Joe Biden might take notes.
FDR did not desire to create a socialist state, as many on the right would have you believe. He understood that these reforms were necessary to save capitalism. With communism and fascism on the rise around the globe – and a growing militant labor class at home – the bargain with capital was simple: Give up some of your dominance of American life or watch the entire system collapse. This fact did not stop the American right from attacking the newly found social welfare state.
Many of the attacks from the right would be familiar to us today. Cries of socialism, demonizing the poor as “undeserving” or “lazy,” characterizing these programs as an attack on taxpayers. The problem was, so much of the country was affected by the crisis that these programs became instantly popular, and attacking them became politically untenable. That, more than anything, scared conservatives determined to destroy the New Deal. The people were realizing what rich capitalists already knew: The government wasn't just a passive observer, it was a tool that could be used to better people’s lives.
Right-wing Supreme Court justices tried to exert their will on the welfare state. Legislation passed by congressional supermajorities was struck down by a Court enforcing its ideological coherence, as it does today with a radicalized conservative majority. A generation of judges appointed by presidents working within a now discredited ideological foundation were appalled by what they saw. Rather than capitulate to the demands of these bad-faith actors, FDR fought back. He threatened to pack the Supreme Court with like-minded judges. If these old assholes wouldn't let him fix the country, he would appoint new, young assholes who would. Ultimately the Court caved.
The most effective and subversive attack by conservatives came from within the Democratic Party. Southern conservatives, or Dixiecrats, used their position to ensure New Deal programs would be administered in such a way that Black people would be largely excluded. Due to the fascistic one-party rule in the South, Dixiecrats mostly served in safe seats without opposition, similar to how Republicans in states like Wisconsin have rigged electoral maps so they can never lose. This allowed them to take advantage of congressional seniority rules and head key committees in charge of shaping policy. They used this power to exclude professions dominated by Black people, like agriculture and house cleaning, from being eligible for workers’ programs.
The corrupt bargain made by FDR was to alleviate the suffering of a majority of Americans, the South would be allowed to continue and reinforce its racist Jim Crow regime. The South would remain an undemocratic apartheid state, as it is today.
FDR also faced threats from the nascent fascist movement. Nazi lovers like Father Coughlin used anti-semitism to gain a mass following and oppose the progressive administration. Far-right capitalists were so horrified by the gains made by working people they at least floated the idea of a coup. Known as the Business Plot, fascist capitalists looked to storm Washington and install Smedley Butler as military dictator of the US. Ultimately the coup did not make it past the conspiratorial phase. It does, however, speak to the willingness of capital, when faced with real democratic opposition, to turn on democracy to maintain its power. These types of positions would become untenable, though, as the US rallied to face the external threats of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
After World War II, the US reached a new political consensus. Americans spent five years sacrificing for the war effort and now looked to reap their rewards. They demanded the government take an even more active role in improving their lives. A new “American Dream” was established. With investment in housing, infrastructure, the GI Bill, and the Veterans Administration, the suburban lifestyle was born. That’s right: The suburban ideal these modern-day fascists cling to so tightly is the result of robust social welfare investment. At least for white people. Black people and other minorities were left out of this dream. In When Affirmative Action was White, Ira Katznelson writes, “A survey of 13 Mississippi cities by Ebony Magazine found that of the 3,229 VA guaranteed home, business and farm loans made in 1947, precisely 2 had gone to Blacks.” Mississippi's population at the time was roughly 45 percent Black.
Throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Black political activists courageously fought against this racist systemic oppression. As Black people gained civil rights, bad-faith conservative politicians saw an inroad to attacking the New Deal consensus. Ghouls like Barry Goldwater looked to harness racial resentment and white identity politics to divide the class solidarity that had existed since the Great Depression. In 1968 and 1972, Republicans effectively used the “Southern Strategy” to gain political power. However, Nixon – for all his glaring faults and criminality – still believed in New Deal-style economics. The capitalist class of the Republican Party was outraged when Nixon implemented price controls and founded new regulatory agencies like the EPA to fight the most abhorrent business practices. They would have to wait until 1980 before being able to install a true puppet – a D-list Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan – who would be willing to dismantle the social welfare state.
The Reagan Revolution: A War On The Poor
The Reagan Revolution can be best viewed as a revolution by capital against the working class. Capital, in short, was no longer fucking around. Cloaked in bad-faith populist rhetoric, the Reaganites sought to paint the government – rather than capital – as the enemy of the people. It was a genius stroke of bad-faith politics. If Big Government would just get out of the way, everything would get better, they cried in bad faith. Ronnie presented a new social contract to the American people that rejected the New Deal and put the individual – the homeowner – at the forefront and painted the unwashed masses as leeches on society deserving of their lot in life.
One of Reagan’s first acts in office was to fire the striking air traffic control officers. The implication was clear. No longer would the government be a fair broker between labor and capital. It now existed strictly to enforce the interests of big business. Then, in 1981, Reagan cut almost all taxes that affected the top 10 percent of households beyond anything previous Republicans had dreamed. The right-wing effort to bleed government drive had hit overdrive. Soon after, almost all government anti-poverty programs saw a drastic cut, all while Republicans poured money into Defense -- always a major engine for economic growth for the richest among us -- and into the suburbs. The Reagan administration and likeminded assholes in Congress would use racialized dog-whistle fear-of-crime politics to reinforce to suburbanites that he would keep their neighborhoods beautiful and pristine and save them from the poor urban masses. As if this dichotomy wasn’t an intentional result of “Reaganomic” policies. As if one wasn’t only able to exist at the expense of the other.
The attacks on the social welfare state would continue throughout Reagan and Daddy Bush’s presidencies. Republicans would gain huge electoral wins on the back of this formula with Reagan getting 525 electoral votes in 1984, the most in history. Ignoring the plight of the downtrodden became not just common, but noble. If you helped them, how would they ever pull themselves up by their bootstraps? So debased by these electoral losses, Democrats largely abandoned the New Deal project that allowed them to dominate American political life for generations. They instead found themselves looking for a Third Way, a split between helping people in need and leaving them to die in the streets.
Bill Clinton ran for president during an economic recession in 1992. The little-known governor of Arkansas gained grassroots support through his charismatic portrayal as an “everyman” and his performative displays of compassion. Clinton, a Dixiecrat at heart, could say he “feels your pain” all he wanted, he was a neoliberal through and through. Reagan may have been the vessel to force Reaganomics onto the nation, but it was Clinton who codified it. It was Clinton and his administration that made the free market, small government ideology the only acceptable way to view American politics. Clinton would continue the war on the New Deal state – slashing benefits and imposing strict work requirements – while signing trade deals like NAFTA, an anti-labor policy that destroyed American manufacturing. If Reagan was neoliberalism’s Caesar, Clinton was its Augustus.
Throughout the 2000s, the social contract instituted by Reagan continued unabated. Post-9/11 American politics was completely subsumed by the War on Terror. Any notion of solidarity based on class was derided “class warfare,” dividing Americans. Meanwhile, the upper class waged continual economic war on the poorest and most marginalized communities through eye-watering tax cuts for the wealthy and austerity for everyone else. Cuts to welfare programs, stricter bureaucracy, and stagnating wages furthered economic inequality. Then came the financial crash of 2008.
The stock market crash and bank failures of 2008 exposed and discredited the neoliberal Republican project. For the first time in almost 40 years, class solidarity was gaining ground. After watching a bunch of rich assholes gamble the economy into another potential Great Depression, Americans demanded change. Barack Obama became the symbol of that change.
The problem with this is Obama didn't stand in opposition to neoliberal capitalism, he was born of it. He was the living embodiment of the codification of neoliberalism, not the black socialist boogeyman the right wing thought he was. Obama, by his very existence, was proof the neoliberal meritocracy “worked.” So instead of trying to change the system, he fought to preserve it. Even with enormous Democratic majorities in Congress, the post-financial collapse administration failed to do enough to help those affected by the crisis. The dogmatic belief in deficits – as well as the capture of both major parties by capital – caused every bill passed to be entirely insufficient. Obama and the Democrats were still living in Reagan’s America, playing by his rules, unable to imagine a political reality outside the confines of Reaganism. Liberals born in the 60s and 70s and 80s had been primed their whole lives to give in to bad-faith Republican attacks around austerity. So that’s exactly what they did.
Even as the economy recovered, immiseration became more widespread, and inequality got worse. Money was being poured into the same financial institutions that caused the collapse through low-interest rates and quantitative easing. Meanwhile, the places hit hardest were largely abandoned, paving the way for right-wing populists like Trump to lure these voters into his camp. Through obstruction and intransigence, Republicans forced Obama to cave on many of his campaign promises and desperately needed social spending.
Obama’s unwillingness (or inability) to acknowledge Republican bad faith will forever be a stain on a once promising legacy.
Moving Forward By Rejecting Conservative Bad Faith
The neoliberal and New Deal revolutions both changed people’s relationship with their government. The New Deal made the government a tool to improve people’s lives. Rather than being a distant behemoth, people interacted with the government in more symbiotic ways. There was a belief that the government was truly “here to help.” The Reagan Revolution had the opposite effect. People’s relationship with the government became largely punitive.
Today, most people’s interaction with the government is through policing and taxation. Even those who qualify for assistance have to navigate opaque bureaucracy and constantly prove they are “deserving.” I can speak firsthand about how dehumanizing this process can be.
So-called means-testing leaves out people on the margins. It speaks to the way Democrats view poor people – that if you can constantly prove you're immiserated, through no fault of your own, then you deserve help. The implication here is that the system is working fine for everyone else. It is not. We are a society of people living paycheck to paycheck, always on the brink of financial calamity. Artificially creating a distinction between the working poor and the shrinking middle class results in a class conflict where there should be class solidarity. It imbues people with the idea that while they’re working their asses off and barely getting by, someone somewhere is lazily living off their tax dollars. This makes people susceptible to bad-faith demonization of the poor, a key characteristic of all fascist movements.
We need to change the foundation of how we structure and implement social safety net programs. These programs should be universal. Rather than have people prove they are poor enough for help, we should give everyone most benefits and collect the excess through taxation -- the most effective means-testing we have. This will guard such vital programs against the bad-faith politics of conservatives determined to demonize the poor. Universal benefits are the most direct way to short circuit the power of bad faith politics.
Everyone knowing that these programs are there for them might just grow class solidarity. Look at the popularity of Social Security and Medicare as an example. If Social Security only benefited the poor, it would have been ripped out at the roots a generation ago. Universal social programs have the added benefit of spreading opportunity among the population. It is a lot easier to take a risk on a business venture or a new job if you know the price for failure isn't complete destitution.
We also need to change the way we view government. In a functioning democracy, it is not the government, it is our government. These aren’t the government's social safety net programs, they are ours. They're there to help us build a society in which no one has to live in immiseration and everyone has the opportunity for a life of dignity.
Absent the possibility of a government that stands in opposition to capital, we should demand the government at least acts as a neutral arbiter between labor and capital in the never-ending struggle between the two forces. We should demand the government take a more active role in relieving the suffering brought about by capitalism. If Democrats embrace this, if they stop trying to technocrat their way through disaster after disaster and embrace programs meant to help everyone, maybe we can turn back some of the class dealignment we’ve seen over the past decade and deflate the political power of the next fascist strongman who takes control of the Republican Party.
It is important to remember the history of the social welfare state and the right’s constant efforts to destroy it. By looking to the activists and leaders who demanded a better life, perhaps we can do the same. And only by understanding the right’s bad-faith attempts to dismantle it can we stop them from doing it again.
Follow Anthony Reimer on Twitter at @mrmeseeksff.