Counting the Costs of Policy-making by Ideological Abstraction

            I confess I am increasingly at sea as I try to make sense of the actions of the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. That caucus recently supported several of its more zealously ideological members and decided to cut the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP) support by $20.5 billion, thereby going on record as wanting to eliminate food assistance to nearly 2 million low-income people in a weak economy. Fortunately, the bill ultimately was defeated, when that same group failed to support other provisions of its own party’s effort. There is little doubt that the funding reduction, had it held up, would have left many Americans hungry. Most of those who would have lost support were senior citizens or working families with children. But the fact remains that the GOP-led House so voted and that Party’s members’ rhetoric accompanying the action was harsh and often ugly.

            E.J. Dionne captured what I find so troubling about the House’s proposed SNAP reductions in his June 23 column in The Washington Post when he noted, “There is something profoundly wrong when a legislative majority is so eager to risk leaving so many Americans hungry.” Elsewhere in his essay, Dionne observed that one key concern this episode revealed was “… a shockingly cruel attitude toward the poor on the part of the Republican majority.” That these legislators behaved this way bespeaks a prevailing brand of radical thought afoot these days in the GOP that argues that seniors and the poor—even those who are working—and other groups who need public assistance somehow represent a cancer on society. Notably, the proposition is self-confirming. Individuals who require support can be branded as pariah in this view precisely because they are receiving public aid.

            More deeply, in this ideological telling, any public program or action aimed at providing succor to another citizen has been labeled as suspect and, most often, undue and unnecessary. In the prevailing view, in the House Tea Party caucus particularly, individuals receiving aid are “takers,” dragging down and living parasitically off those who are “producers.” For many of these leaders the next step, on the basis of this thinking, is to conclude that the “leech-like” citizens who need assistance must be weaned from their freeloading stance. The truth is that none of this argument has an empirical basis and the reality of poverty and hunger is far more complex than this simplistic narrative suggests. But even beyond the question of fact, I have been striving to understand how these individuals could rationalize a view that ultimately assumes that any claim to help their fellow citizens via government is per se problematic, if not dangerous.

            As discomfiting as this cruel contempt for the idea of owing anything to the democratic community or commons that underpins the assault on the poor by Republicans in the House is, it has nonetheless lately indirectly been given a boost by conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court. A majority of the justices on that bench recently struck down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which choice immediately permitted several GOP-majority state legislatures to proceed with actions aimed at reducing access to the polls for minority, poor and elderly voters. Ironically, to reach their ruling the justices had to ignore the recent Republican Party penchant to use voter identification and registration requirements as well as redistricting to keep members of groups (the poor and minorities especially) that they perceive as less likely to vote for their candidates from casting ballots in the name of preventing non-existent fraud. Following the Court’s decision, Texas, for example, quickly set out to implement registration and identification requirements that had been blocked previously by a federal three judge panel as patently discriminatory against minority voters in that state.

            In the short term, most analysts believe, assuming the Republican Party proceeds as now seems probable, the new state-level districts and voter documentation requirements supported by the GOP and symbolized by Texas’ actions will at least marginally (roughly 2 percent or so on average) suppress minority voting and dilute its consequences, and will help to solidify Republican control in many states in its Southern base despite their changing demographic characteristics. In the longer pull, taking these actions will exacerbate alienation from the party among members of groups set to become America’s majority population in coming decades. In consequence, as the numbers of minorities continue to grow in GOP dominated states, the likely result of the current Republican effort to undermine voting rights for these groups will be an electoral backlash against that party. Meanwhile, the Court’s ruling has provided the radicals now controlling the GOP discretion to ensure their current power and standing while reassuring their followers that they have neutralized any perceived threat from the “others” whose political rights they actively seek to deny.

            It is the cynical, sweeping and cruel character of these actions toward the hungry, and toward the vulnerable and minorities more generally in these two realms of action, that I find so difficult to fathom. The Supreme Court did not need legally to rule on the Voting Rights provision. It chose to do so and to ignore willfully in the process the empirical reality of nativism and chauvinism and ongoing ham-handed assaults on voting rights in Republican-dominated states. For voting rights, the question this scenario raises is, why GOP legislators believe in the first instance they can simply declare major portions of the American citizenry as undeserving and unfit to be members of the political community? For public support for those in need, the question is, when did it become permissible for these Republican legislators to consign a child or a senior citizen to hunger on the abstract basis that they are undeserving because “takers”? How do these legislators justify the idea that we can live in a society in which some are allowed their rights and others are systematically deprived both of those rights and of their means of sustaining themselves? How can we call such a society democratic at all?

            These are unsettling questions and I am saddened to raise them. I am somewhat heartened that Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA), who has so often led the GOP assault on comity and the idea of the democratic commons in that body, has recently expressed interest in ensuring that all citizens have unfettered access to the franchise. One may hope that others in his party will listen and act soon to stop their efforts to limit this singular democratic right. The nation is too far along already on a path to declaring some Americans “rights-worthy” and others not on the basis of discriminatory criteria that appear rooted, finally, in fear, contempt and a quest for power.

            Perhaps revisiting their Party’s recent embrace of efforts to block minority access to the ballot, now ironically available to them strategically thanks to the high court’s Voting Rights Act decision, will prompt GOP leaders likewise to rethink their assumption that the poor and vulnerable constitute parasites on the body politic. Republican Party actions concerning voting and support for the poor rest on a constricted view of political community that is ultimately illiberal and undemocratic. The GOP has de facto targeted minorities and the poor in its efforts to make voting more difficult for citizens in many states even as it has demonized the vulnerable and individuals without means in its rhetoric concerning social support programs. All of this has resulted in a prolonged attack on the very idea of democratic community. I hope Republican leaders will soon come to realize that the party’s assumptions will neither conduce ultimately to their quest for power nor sustain a free society in the long run.