On Three Discomfiting Political Trends

            Two excellent New York Times columnists have lately written about three major trends in our polity that I have also found of continuing concern. Timothy Egan recently argued that GOP leaders’ decisions in many Southern states not to expand Medicaid to assist their poor citizens is ultimately without justification since the national government will fund that expansion nearly completely. He concluded that these legislatures and governors have taken this extraordinary step on the basis of spite and that the rancor their choice symbolizes was born of malice for its own sake. Egan argued, and I suspect rightly, that should this decision stand, the nation will likely develop a two-track health care system in coming decades, with the poor enjoying the ability to obtain care in the North, much of the Midwest and the West while a substantial share of that population in Southern states will rely on a patchwork of much less reliable and fulsome charity care at high expense at hospitals inadequately subsidized for the purpose. The South, already the nation’s poorest region and continuing to lag on many social and economic indicators, will, in short, fall further behind the rest of the country as many of its public officials quite literally work to ensure that standing by worsening the difficulties experienced by the poor in their constituencies, even in the face of viable alternatives to do otherwise. This trend, of a group of the nation’s elected representatives actively working to degrade the potential living conditions of a portion of the body politic they supposedly serve, is extraordinary by any measure.

            Egan has also pointed up the virtually unprecedented stance the Republican Party has adopted throughout the Obama presidency not only to compete with the President and his party, but publicly and repeatedly to wish for and celebrate governance failures during his tenure. The GOP opposed the stimulus package aimed at assisting the nation in its deep economic recession, and when that law passed, the party’s members repeatedly called it a failure and demanded its termination, opposed provision of public assistance to a number of major banking, insurance and manufacturing firms teetering on the edge of failure, opposed implementation of the health care reform law and celebrated the difficulties responsible officials have experienced with making the health care insurance web portal fully operational. The Party also strongly resisted passage and later, implementation, of the law aimed at reining in some of the excesses of Wall Street firms that helped to precipitate the nation’s recent recession. In each of these cases, the Republicans not only opposed specific policies, but also went further and sought to undermine laws already passed, and in each case the party saw fit to do so without offering any real alternative to help to address the concerns these initiatives were otherwise seeking to confront. As Egan has noted, the GOP has spent several years now jeeringly cheering for government failure while offering little by way of options besides that position. This stance has amounted to a continuous undermining of governance by lawmakers otherwise sworn to make government institutions function effectively on behalf of the nation’s citizens. Even brief consideration of Egan’s point should give any reasonable observer pause.

            Charles Blow has likewise treated the question of how the GOP has regarded governance and the poor in recent years and has similarly expressed amazement at how frequently and vehemently some Republican lawmakers have attacked those living in poverty in this nation. Whether disparaging individuals for their assumed unwillingness to work, or implying that the entire poor population is seeking to game the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or calling for reductions in that initiative and related efforts to assist the most poor on grounds that the nation cannot afford such aid, many in the GOP have maligned those who are faring the least well in our nation’s economy even as that party has sought to secure tax advantages for the country’s most wealthy citizens.

            All of this is of more than professional interest to Blow, who grew up in a poor family and who has written movingly of his experience of poverty as a child. The columnist has argued (and many scholars agree) many of these attacks make little sense in light of the actual conditions experienced by those in poverty, the largest share of whom work and who, Republican Party mythology notwithstanding, have not become poor in order to take advantage of their fellow citizens. But tellingly, Blow has gone further to make two interrelated points. He has observed that while all citizens of good will should be interested in the common weal and in seeking to ensure conditions that permit all Americans to work who can do so and to achieve all of which they are capable, one may not assume that such will obtain. Instead, there will always be those who discriminate unjustly, who find fault when there is none and who are more than willing to blame people born with difficulties not of their creation for their situations. Blow has reminded his readers that the poor have always confronted injustice in addition to the realities of living with too few means. The challenge, therefore, is how to equip this population with the necessary determination and steadfastness to cope and to strive when there appears to be no good reason to do so, as for example, when your congressperson declaims against providing nutrition assistance for your children on grounds utterly unrelated to anything resembling your daily lived reality. And, as Blow has observed, this challenge is hardly a purely individual one; it must also be aligned with genuine social possibility or those persevering will be robbed of the hope that must underpin their determined efforts to press ahead despite the injustices with which they must contend.

            Each of these three major trends in our politics—a continual maligning of the poor and vulnerable among many political leaders, the spectacle of one political party not only championing its own positions, but calling for and celebrating governance failures and public officials taking policy stands that knowingly worsen living conditions and possibilities for a portion of the citizens they serve for no other apparent reason than malice—is profoundly concerning. Together they point to several enduring challenges. The first is elected government officials who are so partisan and so shrilly ideological as to lose sight of the fact that they share governance responsibilities with individuals whose views may surely differ from their own, but who also are citizens of the same nation. Self-governance must be a common enterprise or it will be no enterprise at all. It cannot long survive its political leaders championing its failure. A second and allied concern is the continued vilification of the poor and vulnerable on no basis other than they are not advantaged. Capitalism and humanity itself create inequalities of condition and possibility that will ever be with us. The aspiration of a regime that would call itself democratic is, or should be, to dignify all of its citizens whatever their economic standing, social status or peculiar abilities. Democracy cannot long withstand a share of its elected leaders persistently degrading any of its number and expect that group either to retain its formal (or informal) status of equality for long in that society. No democratic government worthy of the name, and no officials acting with its authority, should malign a share of its own people as beneath the rights their Constitution and shared humanity guarantee them. Among those rights is to be treated with dignity and respect, whatever a person’s income and social standing.

            A final unsettling implication of these current trends in our politics is their poisonous effects on our citizenry’s capacity to act collectively on behalf of the common weal. If one hears daily from a share of one’s leaders that their government and those who lead it are appropriate targets for contempt and that one should celebrate and indeed work to ensure that self-governance fails—all on the basis of a priori personal inclinations that also hold compromise to be little more that pusillanimity—then we are left with a divided, rudderless and fearful population whose own propensity to heap contempt on some of its number can only yield increasing governance woes. President Abraham Lincoln once observed, recalling Matthew’s biblical injunction, that, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” We ought as a polity to recall and to heed his wise warning.