Musings on “Takers” and Civic Identity

            Paul Krugman sounded positively incredulous in his September 21 column in The New York Times. House Speaker John Boehner, the titular leader of the nation’s Republican Party, had offered comments a few days before at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington D.C., once again placing responsibility for the situation confronted by the long-term unemployed on those individuals alone, attributing their predicament to their purported “laziness.” Boehner had done that despite the fallout and the political damage to the Romney presidential campaign in 2012, when the former governor had argued similarly that 47 percent of the U.S. citizens were “takers.” For his part, in his remarks at AEI in response to a question, Boehner lamented that, "this idea that has been born, maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, that you know, I really don't have to work. I don't really want to do this. I think I'd rather just sit around. This is a very sick idea for our country."[1]

            And as Krugman contended, Boehner also made this argument concerning the 3 million Americans constituting the long-term unemployed, after the GOP had successfully ended national public support for those individuals. Many states have followed suit. Indeed, the reality was that as Boehner spoke, only 26 percent of the jobless were receiving any kind of unemployment benefit. This low level of public aid undercuts the Speaker’s contention that millions are lounging lazily on their proverbial couches watching reality television shows and eating bon bons on the citizens’ dime. The assertion was simply not factually true.

            In his effort to grapple with why this claim nonetheless continues to have such traction for conservatives despite its fictive character, Krugman speculated that it might be an effort at race baiting, since many conservatives believe (again falsely) that dark-skinned individuals make up the majority of the unemployed. The Nobel Prize-winning economist also wondered if Boehner might simply be preaching to the choir in the Republican Party base, which routinely gets its information from a closed and self-reinforcing limited set of sources, including Fox Cable, the AEI and other conservative ideologically oriented think tanks. These, for their own purposes, do nothing to correct the sorts of claims the House leader offered as they appeal to a share of the population and mobilize their support—both money and votes.

            While I agree that this sort of group think is likely afoot and that GOP strategists, going back at least to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” have shown themselves disposed to play the “race card” when they calculated it would yield votes, I believe that all of these assertions also more deeply represent a redefinition of civic identity in favor of a profoundly individualistic and thoroughly marketized conception. That is, they represent, consciously or not, an attack on the idea of a political civic identity itself. While purportedly celebrating hard work and self-discipline, Boehner was actually arguing for an extraordinary conception of citizenship that is really not recognizable as citizenship at all. Instead, it is an idea of the democratic citizen that celebrates supposed market “victors” (while remaining silent on how they may have acquired their comfortable status) and decrying all attempts to imagine that civic identity ought, under virtually any conceivable circumstances, play a role in ameliorating individual suffering or constructing and maintaining a social commons.

            This trope is hardly new and its primary consequence, when argued in principle as Boehner set out to do, is to undermine the legitimacy of any public claim for individual citizens’ support, directly or indirectly. The results of that orientation to civic identity are already becoming evident in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and public higher education crises, among other challenges that might be highlighted.

            As it happens, Dante Alighieri treated this concern in The Divine Comedy. The great poet and thinker offered a conversation on this topic among a poet, a philosopher and a politician in the Paradiso section of his masterwork. Dante described the public corruption of his time to his imagined interlocutors, and the prince with whom he was conversing asked, “Would it be worse for man if he were not a citizen on earth, but left to his own sufficiency?” The poet replied, “Yes, … and I do not need to ask the reason.” [2] The unstated premise in this colloquy was that human beings are political animals and cannot live in radically individuated states, nor can they imagine life without some sort of society as a result, whatever its frailties and challenges. That is, these allegorical figures shared the view that human beings could not live as so many autonomous atoms and survive. But Dante did not leave the reason for this agreement among his conversationalists unstated. Instead, he had the philosopher inquire where society would be without a city (a metaphor for a commons of shared responsibility anchored by a citizenry willing and able to support it). Dante’s thinker contended that not only would life without the city not produce any sort of civic identity, it would result in the breakdown of the entire possibility represented by the idea of society itself—appeals to the commons complete and enhance individual possibility in ways that entreaties linked to purely private goods cannot.

            Dante’s profound insight into humanity and society has been ignored in the GOP’s ideological war of the moment. Those vilifying unemployed citizens (or other groups who may be “othered” to gain political support) undermine the potential for a civic identity underpinned by shared responsibility and common bonds in favor of a vision of unfettered market-driven individualism. These proselytizers are unwilling to temper their claims for fear they will lose their mobilizing force or open themselves to attack from others offering purer forms of the contentions they advance. At bottom, it surely does not matter whether their assertions are aimed at mobilizing around existing ignorance and prejudice, seeking to encourage the formation of unawareness and discrimination in segments of the population that may then be exploited for political gain, or arising from the fact that many so engaged live and work in a media environment dominated by narrowcast visions. A broadcast and print megaphone daily trumpeting outrage over the nation’s “takers” certainly reinforces conservatives’ utopian belief that one can and should sustain a free society on the basis of an atomistic individualism governed principally not by a shared sense of civic identity and purpose, but instead by obeisance to a supposed all knowing marketplace.

            This sort of unspoken and often poorly articulated contention undermines the possibility of any civic identity beyond the merely idolatrous, and pretends that human beings can live freely in societies with no glue to join citizens to what Dante supposed were their innately common political identities. It imagines that a free society can exist when its citizens need acknowledge no bond or responsibility to one another. It bespeaks not a robust vision of social possibility, but one of disaffection and smug satisfaction that will do nothing to ensure freedom, but instead tear persistently at the bonds necessary to legitimate and sustain it. In short, the current conservative collective belief that the commons can be redefined away drains with it the possibility of politics and any shared understanding of civic identity. As such it is not merely angry and divisive, but also deeply corrodes the very possibility of society as something other than an assemblage of what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ once aptly dubbed a “War of all against all.” As Dante knew, that condition will not, indeed cannot, sustain society, let alone a self-governing polity.

Notes

[1] Huffington Post. “John Boehner is Sick of Unemployed People that would ‘Rather Just Sit Around,’” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/18/john-boehner-unemployed_n_5846084.html September 18, 2014.

[2] Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by H. F. Cary. Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8800/8800-h/8800-h.htm. Paradiso: Canto VIII, Line 120.