Counting the Costs of Predatory Mobilization Politics

            Congress, virtually all interested scholars and much of the general public agree, including many of our legislature’s members themselves, is gridlocked. This situation has arisen due to the development of deep ideological differences between our two major political parties as congressional members of the Republican party, in particular, have become notably more conservative and radical and much less willing to compromise to secure public policy ends in recent years.

            I was struck again this morning while reading the newspaper that this polarization among many members of the GOP has arisen in considerable measure on the basis of widely shared assumptions about government and governance that have no basis in fact, but which nevertheless fit neatly conservative rallying cries that the federal government is usurping individual freedom and initiative. In particular, one Tea Party activist in Ohio, who works as a cashier, was reported today as being blisteringly angry that those on welfare and food stamps in her state “eat expensive sushi and have their nails done” and otherwise can afford a much higher standard of living and quality of life than she can, despite her hard work. The reporter pointed out just how difficult it is to obtain temporary assistance for needy families support in Ohio and the aid total for families on food stamps, which hardly permits lavish lifestyles, despite the cashier’s claims to the contrary. Indeed, in many states, including my own (Virginia), Republican legislators (very much in control in our General Assembly) take particular pride in how little support they provide the needy, on the view that such aid, per se, provides those individuals a disincentive to work. This fact points up a reality few Tea Party activists acknowledge: States already enjoy considerable control over social service spending levels, for good and ill. The national government has not “imposed a one size fits all” model.

            These facts notwithstanding, the more difficult economic conditions are, the easier it is to rally those working, but who are nonetheless insecure about the employment environment they confront, around the myth that there are millions of people taking unfair advantage of their willingness to provide support to assist them. The poor and unemployed, in short, represent a handy scapegoat for the genuine insecurity that many Americans feel in today’s difficult economic situation. As such, the poor and unemployed become an easy mark in campaign politics for conservatives especially, who, in principle, favor lower levels of social services than are now available. But the Tea Party member profiled was not engaged in an in-principle philosophic debate concerning the appropriate roles and reach of government, but offered a very human response to what she believed were poor people taking advantage of her and other hardworking Americans.

            Beyond the point that the GOP leaders are not asking her to consider empirically whether what she believes is true (by any measure, it is not), it is clear the Party is also not asking her to ponder whether completely eliminating all social services spending would repair her government’s fiscal difficulties (it would not by a long, long shot), or whether doing so somehow would make those left without support competitive in a job market for which they are ill equipped for a complicated array of reasons in the first place (overwhelmingly, the evidence is it would not).

            So, what one is left with in this sad scenario is a campaign politics that plays on insecurity to blame an unpopular population for a larger problem set, thereby to gain power to pursue an agenda never really openly debated in the first instance. Whether the target is immigrants or the poor as the source of the nation’s (or state’s) woes, these scapegoats are not responsible for the conditions attributed to them, and ascribing negative stereotypes to these groups and becoming irate over their supposed culpability, will do nothing to address the nation’s central policy and fiscal challenges, or help voters to comprehend the difficult choices they must make to do so. Instead, such symbolic mobilization politics misleads, misinforms and deepens polarization. The result looks set to be a still more divided and angry electorate, shares of which will be still more convinced that specific groups among them are responsible for their woes. While seeking someone to blame for difficult problems one confronts is surely a typically human response, the fact it is occurring in our campaign politics in this way represents an abdication of responsibility by our political leaders to help their constituents understand the nature of their governance in favor of a small, increasingly vicious and deeply misleading rhetoric of misguided and uninformed animus. This turn may well “work” as a mobilization device for leaders and would-be leaders, but at what cost to the possibility of our democratic politics?