Pondering Power and Injustice in Democratic Politics

I have been struck in recent days by how often ideological commitment coupled with an orientation to political power alone can result in cruel and unjust treatment of specific groups of citizens in this country. Of course, this phenomenon is hardly new in the United States or to its democracy. One need only reflect on the carnival-like revelry that surrounded public lynchings of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, or on the historical treatment of Native Americans, among many other groups, to recall that what we are now experiencing as a polity is hardly new. That said, devotees of self-governance should always be willing to point up injustices and to decry their representatives’ actions when these deny citizens their human rights or treat populations unjustly on the basis of their characteristics or wealth. This must be so, whether we ever attain a democratic ideal as a people, if we are collectively to protect our freedom. Several recent national news stories have pointed to this reality. It is clear, for example, that much of GOP Presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign is predicated on the demonization of Muslims, African Americans and immigrants to this country, and so itself constitutes a manifest injustice targeted at those populations on the basis of fear and prejudice. In addition to the Trump example, I briefly describe two other currently unfolding scenarios suggesting this form of injustice.

The first has arisen from Virginia’s long-term willingness to ignore federal law and a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring that the state offer appropriate community-based support to its citizens with disabilities. The State’s legislature not only has not provided adequate services for that population for decades, but its members did not begin to address that reality with anything like vigor until the United States Department of Justice threatened to file suit in 2011 to compel the state to do so.1 A settlement followed in 2012 in which Virginia promised to rectify the situation its leaders had created, but as I write, and as a recent story in the Roanoke Times highlighted, more than 12,000 individuals with disabilities (and their families seeking to assist them) have been declared eligible for state-support for community-based assistance, but continue to be denied that aid because Virginia’s leaders have not provided funding to offer it.2 Elected officials have “explained” their continued lack of support for this population by suggesting that such efforts are relatively expensive and that most of those aided will not “contribute” to the Commonwealth’s economy.

Importantly, the state has not lacked funds in any absolute sense to provide adequate community-based support to these Virginians and their families. Instead its leaders have chosen not to do so. Indeed, lawmakers have seen fit to continue to discriminate against this population in good measure because its members do not vote in large numbers, have little political salience and have long been the target of popular ignorance and prejudice. The neoliberal ideological argument that these individuals have no value as a group, since many of them cannot work, has apparently reinforced this raw political judgment among legislators. It has, therefore, been almost politically costless in the state for elected leaders to deny these individuals their rights and promised services under law. The result has been long-term mistreatment and injustice visited on thousands of individuals and their families because it was easy for lawmakers to rationalize doing so. It is obvious that this political orientation is, in both principle and practice, profoundly anti-democratic and immoral. Moreover, it should be recalled that the Justice Department had to force the state to acknowledge that its stance was illegal to compel Virginia’s leaders even to begin fully to realize responsibilities they had largely ignored for decades. If one views this as a moral test of the leaders of the Commonwealth, they have surely failed, and continue to fail it.

A second example of this sort of political behavior lately in the news occurred in East Chicago, Indiana where, as The New York Times reported, 1,100 residents of a housing development must relocate due to extremely toxic levels of lead in the soil where they live.3 That exposure to lead is dangerous has been known for decades. Even limited contact with it has been found to cause learning disabilities among small children who have been exposed to it in older homes with lead-based paint on the walls or, as in the Indiana case, in the soil where they play. While this reality is well known and the human cost to mostly poor Americans is equally well documented, many state and national legislators, disproportionately Republicans, have actively worked to prevent vigorous clean-up efforts on the grounds that the cost of doing so to the relevant industry was too high. For its part, the chemical industry historically has fought all efforts to press it to assist with cleaning up its toxic brew on the same grounds. Meanwhile, the human toll continues to rise, and it falls disproportionately on a political constituency ill equipped to press its claims in the policy advocacy process. As one reader summarized the issues in a comment on The Times article:

It is not surprising that this kind of disparity exists. Like so many things, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and in this case being squeaky requires money and clout. If my middle-class neighborhood got a letter saying ‘don’t play in the dirt,’ there would be outrage and we would spend the money to get expert help. Every local doctor and lawyer would be helping for free. What’s frustrating about this story (and Flint for that matter) is that it doesn’t need to happen. We have the technical know-how to fix it. What’s missing is a strong ethic of environmental justice and the funding to give these people an actual empowered voice in these decisions.4

Columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has underlined this evidence of continued willingness of political leaders to sacrifice the rights of already disadvantaged citizens by highlighting the ongoing effort to clean up the lead-contaminated water supply of Flint, Michigan. Krugman has used that tragedy and the Indiana example to suggest that what should be a straightforward bi-partisan political response to an important public health issue has instead too often become a partisan concern that has left afflicted citizens bereft and exposed to terrible environmental contaminants:

Lead paint was finally taken off the market in 1978, but then ideology stepped in. The Reagan administration insisted that government was always the problem, never the solution — and if science pointed to problems that needed a government solution, it was time to deny the science and bully the scientists, or at least make sure that panels helping set official policy were stuffed with industry-friendly flacks. The administration of George W. Bush did the same thing.5

Like many others, Krugman has appropriately decried the injustice and inhumanity of a politics that would endanger children’s well-being and lives and those of adults, too, to protect industry profits or because the group affected can easily be blamed for its own situation in broader political mobilization efforts.

For Krugman the crises in Indiana and Michigan suggest that any quest for the public weal has too often become a partisan issue, at least in the environmental policy domain. My own sense is that the nation’s parties have always disagreed on how to pursue the public’s interest, but the GOP has now adopted an ideology, and is supporting a Presidential nominee, that justifies scapegoating and discriminating against entire populations in its efforts to gain and retain power. The result is ugly for those citizens disadvantaged by the nation’s capitalist economy or by public policies aimed at supporting market elites, and who can be maligned on the basis of its characteristics to appeal to the worst instincts of other voters. Thousands of Virginia’s citizens with disabilities, as the example above attests, have long been denied support from the state, even after the Commonwealth had declared them eligible for services, because General Assembly members could ignore them with little political fear or cost as an already much discriminated against population.

None of this is new, however unjust and sad it may be. As fallible human beings, Americans have always struggled to realize the noble aspirations enshrined in their Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but it is always appropriate to point out when leaders and citizens fall short of those aims, and especially when those goals themselves appear to have fallen prey to a quest for power at the cost of the rights and dignity of a share of the nation’s citizens. We appear to be in such a situation now, in which many political elites have adopted a more or less absolutist, individualist-oriented ideology that also imagines that the market can replace democratic governance, and that is too willing, too often to sacrifice the rights of those not seen as their supporters in order to attain and retain political power. The costs of this orientation in visiting injustice on specific groups are obvious. So, too, is its ongoing degrading impact on the broader citizenry’s enervating capacity even to aim to realize its ideals.

The nation’s current Trumpian moment of political degradation may provide an opportunity for some soul searching by a share of its elites who have demonstrated a willingness to impose injustice on targeted populations in the name of securing and maintaining power. Self-governance and freedom require more of political leaders if they are to ensure justice, as these goals demand more of the general citizenry as well. Demagogues and autocrats have always exploited human fears and prejudices in their quest for power. Those who would serve freedom must eschew that ready path and work to ensure the rights of all citizens, whether or not they are supporters, and irrespective of whether they are powerful, or rich or poor. This is a lesson for the ages if freedom is to be our regime’s watchword, and one that our current political leaders would do well to consider deeply.

Notes

1 Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, “DOJ Settlement Agreement,” no date; website. Available at: http://www.dbhds.virginia.gov/individuals-and-families/developmental-disabilities/doj-settlement-agreement

2 Sarah Kleiner, “Va.’s New Waiver Program Launched,” The Roanoke Times, September 2, 2016. Available at: http://www.roanoke.com/news/virginia/redesign-of-virginia-s-waiver-program-for-people-with-disabilities/article_a0a50cdd-bf18-5a7e-880c-451aa9341649.html

3 Abby Goodnough, “Their Soil Toxic, 1100 Indian Residents Scramble to find new Homes,” The New York Times, August 30, 2016, Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/31/us/lead-contamination-public-housing-east-chicago-indiana.html?comments#permid=19649715

4 Dan S., re: “Their Soil Toxic, 1100 Indian Residents Scramble to find new Homes,” The New York Times [comment], August 30, 2016. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/31/us/lead-contamination-public-housing-east-chicago-indiana.html?comments#permid=19649715

5 Paul Krugman, “Black Lead Matters,” The New York Times, September 2, 2016, Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/02/opinion/black-lead-matters.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fpaul-krugman&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection& r=0