Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Health Care Reform and the Race Card: Michael Lind and Glenn Greenwald on the "Someone Else" Who Benefits

I appreciate the lively discussion that followed my posting yesterday about the 9.12 protests in D.C. this weekend. My posting drew attention to the supreme irony of the contention of many 9.12 protesters that they want government off their backs, when they benefit from government intervention in ways too numerous to count.

In response to my posting, Butterfly and Phillip Clark point to the racism underlying the “get the government out of my life” mantra. Butterfly says that the 9.12 protesters remind her of the KKK without its robes. Phillip says flatly that these manufactured teabag protests are racism masquerading as loyal opposition.

And Ralph and Colleen call the protestors on their insincere claim that they want government out of their lives and out of their business. As Colleen says, she’ll believe the mantra is sincere when those chanting it burn their Medicare and Medicaid cards.

As Ralph states, it’s all about wanting benefits without responsibilities. It’s about wanting government services for me and mine without the responsibility of paying for you and yours.

In my view, all these comments are right on target. As Michael Lind notes at Salon today, the dirty little secret of the “debate” about health care reform this summer is the unacknowledged fear of many voters that they’re being asked to offer support to folks unlike them—specifically, to brown-and black-skinned fellow citizens. It is that base fear that Joe Wilson’s outburst traded on, when he shouted “You lie!” as the president stated that the health care bill will not cover illegal immigrants.

It is that base fear that those staging these faux populist protests are trading on, as they pull the strings of many Americans who predictably imagine a black or a brown face when they imagine extending any social benefits beyond themselves to others in need—an undeserving black or brown face. As Lind notes,

From the beginning, attempts to create a universal welfare state in the U.S. have been thwarted by the fears of voters that they will be taxed to subsidize other Americans who are unlike them in race or ethnicity or culture. The original Social Security Act passed only after domestic workers and farmworkers -- the majority of black Americans, in the 1930s -- were left out of its coverage, at the insistence of white Southern politicians.

And yet as he also points out, even as many Americans have fought bitterly against providing social assistance to the “undeserving” (brown, black) members of our society, they shamelessly stampede to the trough for every handout possible—for themselves, for their affluent white selves:

Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act destroyed formal white supremacy in the U.S., every attempt to expand traditional social insurance in America has failed. Meanwhile, there has been a massive expansion in government-sponsored welfare going disproportionately to the white and affluent. What the political scientist Christopher Howard calls the hidden welfare state includes the tax-favored employer-provided health insurance that most working-age Americans depend on, as well as the home mortgage interest deduction and the childcare and child tax credits. Affluent and educated workers are more likely to work for employers who provide private health benefits than are low-skilled workers and employees of small businesses. Personal tax benefits like the home mortgage interest deduction are available only to the top half of households who pay federal income taxes, and are unavailable to lower-income workers who pay payroll taxes but no income taxes. In many cases, the benefits of this tax-credit welfare state increase with income.

Glenn Greenwald makes similar points in another Salon piece yesterday. Greenwald dissects an op-ed piece of the neocon Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote recently about the unarticulated fears of many middle-income Americans that “someone else”—someone undeserving—will benefit from health care reform. As Greenwald notes,

Just as was true for the 1994 crime bill, the right-wing fury over health care reform is motivated by the fear that middle-class Americans will have their money taken away by Obama while -- all together now, euphemistically -- "having someone else benefit." And this "someone else" are, as always, the poor minorities and other undeserving deadbeats who, in right-wing lore, somehow (despite their sorry state) exert immensely powerful influence over the U.S. Government and are thus the beneficiaries of endless, undeserved largesse: people too lazy to work, illegal immigrants, those living below the poverty line. That's why Joe Wilson's outburst resonated so forcefully among the Right and why he became an immediate folk hero: he was voicing the core right-wing fear that their money was being stolen from them by Obama in order to lavish the Undeserving and the Others -- in this case illegal immigrants -- with ill-gotten gains ("having someone else benefit," as Douthat/Luntz put it).

In Greenwald’s view, this middle-class fear is warranted. But it’s misplaced. It’s misplaced because, in fact, someone else does already largely benefit from federal redistributive programs. And it’s not the poor. It’s not brown and black citizens. It’s the obscenely rich at the top of the economic pyramid, who just happen to be the folks ultimately pulling the puppet strings at the teabag protests:

This is the paradox of the tea-party movement and other right-wing protests fueled by genuine citizen anger and fear. It is true that the federal government embraces redistributive policies and that middle-class income is seized in order that "someone else benefits." But so obviously, that "someone else" who is benefiting is not the poor and lower classes -- who continue to get poorer as the numbers living below the poverty line expand and the rich-poor gap grows in the U.S. to unprecedented proportions. The "someone else" that is benefiting from Washington policies are -- as usual -- the super-rich, the tiny number of huge corporations which literally own and control the Government.

From Nixon’s Southern strategy forward, when the white South moved solidly into the Republican camp as cynical political strategists whipped up racial antagonism among white Southern voters, wealthy interest groups have used race shamelessly to divert attention from their increasing rapacity and their increasing stranglehold on the democratic process. These interest groups have been adroit about convincing millions of Americans to vote against their own economic and social best interests, as they scapegoat imaginary welfare drones whose faces always happen to be, in the popular imagination, brown and black.

And those interest groups continue to be adroit about race-baiting. And their strategy continues to work. Millions of Americans persistently cut off their noses to spite their faces in their political behavior. We do so because powerful economic interest groups persuade us to do so by manipulating racial fears and resentments. And they will keep on doing so to assure their economic dominance, no matter how much their behavior unweaves the fabric of our democratic society, and brings democracy final unraveling in these United States.

Unless we stop permitting them to do so, that is.