(Published in Mainstream Weekly, vol. 50, no. 21, 2012)
The Social Safety Net in America
Book Review Essay by Eddie J. Girdner
Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 245 pages
The United States is a mature capitalist country on the down side of history. Under neoliberalism, economic policy since the l970s has been centered on an agenda of rapid and radical de-industrialization to ensure higher corporate profits. Jobs have since been exported en masse, while today large corporations are awash with cash. The people have suffered, that is the ninety-nine percent who work, as real jobs with benefits and retirement pay have become more and more scarce and inequality soared to astonishing levels.
This model has been pushed upon the rest of the world, while big corporations, making high profits and paying lower tax rates, have put more of the burden upon the middle classes in America.
While trillions of dollars have been spent on imperialist wars, to help secure corporate profits, and shore up US global power, traditional social welfare at home has been increasingly dismantled. Indeed, it is often perceptively noted by Gore Vidal and others that Americans pay quite high taxes but get hardly any services for their tax dollars. While taxes may be high in most of Europe people have traditionally enjoyed many social services provided by the state.
Indeed, since the Great Society Programs of President Lyndon Johnson in the l960s, the ruling class ideology in the US has moved sharply to the right. The most recent liberal president was not a Democrat, but Richard Nixon, as Noam Chomsky has noted.
This ruling class ideology, so-called free market gospel, has been driven by conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and funded by billionaire corporations. The ideas, generated by conservative scholars, are then propagated by the liberal press and television. But in recent years, the prevailing conservative ideology has been beefed up even more virulently by the Republican Party mouthpiece, Fox TV, owned by Rupert Murdoch.
The ideology of the ruling class is the ruling ideology. Ideological hegemony means that the rabid Right-wing dogma of these conservative pro-business think tanks also strengthens in society. What is considered politically “left”in the United States would generally be considered quite conservative in Europe or most countries around the world. One cannot help but laugh, or groan, when one hears US President Barack Obama referred to as a “socialist”or “radical leftist.”Those making such remarks would not know a genuine leftist if it hit them in the face.
Americans have never enjoyed much of a social state. Indeed, it is absolutely the poorest country in that respect, among the family of post-industrial nations. The primary benefits enjoyed by the elderly have been largely confined to two social programs, Social Security and Medicare. Social security does not come out of taxes, but out of every worker’s pay check. Franklin Roosevelt tried to keep the politicians’ hands off the people’s money, but failed. The fund has now been robbed for other purposes. Medicare is far from a system of state-run health care, such as the National Health Service in England, and state health programs in Canada and France. When a person dies in America, their relatives often end up with large medical bills which must be paid. The state guaranteed health care taken for granted in some European countries could only be an unattainable dream in the United States of America.
The rich and greedy in America have practically got it all at this point in the progressive dialectic of wealth accumulation. But nevertheless, they are still not satisfied. They want more. Ever more.
To push this agenda of billionairies and big corporations forward, there is the need for massive propaganda. One must indeed be in awe of American propaganda. In recent years, this role has been filled primarily by the institution of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV. Here, everything has to be blamed on the government, the liberals, the blacks, the minorities and the foreigners, who are out to take what decent conservative God-fearing white Americans have worked for all their lives. The older white conservatives see their wealth being stolen from them by liberals in the government and given to the undeserving, the young, the foreign immigrants, the lazy. In short, the “moochers.” Other evil forces include the United Nations, leftist ideas from Europe, and, of course, radical Islam. The liberals in the Government are to blame because they prevent the miracle of the market from working, choke businesses, both large and small, with unnecessary regulations and prevent American from being the great nation it once was. The technique is largely fear-mongering, broadcasting fake stories on Fox, which millions of the politically challenged accept without question.
So when Barack Hussein Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, Fox TV exploded with wave after wave of right wing criticism and fear mongering. How could such a thing happen? How could a Muslim, a socialist, a communist, a Nazi, a foreigner, a radical leftist, a liberal, or all of the above, be elected President of the United States and what could be done about it? Moreover, Obama was an intellectual, an elitist, a former university professor, and was seen to look down on the common people.
Barack Obama came into the Presidency in a landslide election promising to bring change to America. The change he wanted was, in his own words, “to spread the wealth around.” For Fox and the conservatives this was proof enough that he was a socialist and a danger to America and must be stopped. This was a threat to the corporate ruling class of America, even though much of his compaign funds had come from the big financial corporations. But to have such a person in the bully pulpit of the Presidency spreading his ideas about helping the poor and doing something positive for those suffering from the rough waters of the capitalist economy in America was not comforting to the ruling class.
The Republicans had lost the election, after eight years of George W. Bush, and could only run an older and weak candidate, John McCain, who many Republicans did not like anyway. The campaign was badly run after picking the know-nothing novice, Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, as the candidate for Vice-President. John McCain and Sarah Palin were badly trounced by Obama.
They had lost, and lost badly. The economy was on the ropes and 800 billion dollars of tax payer’s money had been forked over to the financial sector to bail out American banks in late 2008. After George W. Bush and the election, there was no joy in Republican mudville.
The major threat loomed that more might be spent on social welfare for the people, and taxes might be raised on business, particularly large corporations and middle Americans. This was one side of it. For the other, there were the racial and cultural angles for older traditional Americans. In fact, mainstream America, on the east and west coasts, and big cities, was no longer white-middle class America. Obama was black and thus was hated by some sectors of the population, such as older, white, conservative Republicans and the many in America who are racists. Many, especially older Americans thought he should not have been elected. He was not the typical American, having a foreign father, being an intellectual, and having cosmopolitan connections. And brains. Brains are not as American as apple pie. They can get one into trouble quickly in the political realm. Obama was not seen as a real American to some segments of the population. A radical change from the cretenism of the Bush Chimpocracy.
Fox TV was ready. It has to be said that the Fox idiot box intentionally spreads false information to the people. Falsehoods would be used for political propaganda and to drum up opposition from the people to block any new social programs that the Obama Administration intended to launch.
An event in Chicago was used to spark anger against the new Obama Administration. On February 19, 2009, Rick Santelli, a CNBC TV reporter blasted President Obama’s plan to provide foreclosure relief to Americans who were losing their homes in ever larger numbers. This tantrum against the President was broadcast from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Santelli invited businessmen and ordinary citizens to come to a “Chicago Tea Party” to vent their outrage at Obama’s plans. This was the famous Drudge Report.
Of course, the original tea party signified the event in Boston Harbour in colonial days when Americans boarded a British ship and tossed the tea overboard in a protest over taxes they had to pay to the British rulers. To depict class struggle from above by the ruling class as a populist movement is disingenuous and stands history on its head. The original Tea Party was about relieving the people from the repression of the rulers. The new Tea Party would be about using people to strengthen the power of the corporate ruling class by hoodwinking them into thinking they were working for their own interests.
The complaint from Santelli, from a business viewpoint, of course was greatly simplified. He accused Obama of rewarding those who had not paid their mortgages. After the financial crises, however, many ordinary people began to lose their homes through no fault of their own. Cheap loans had been made to produce quick profits by the mortgage industry. House payments shot up beyond the reach of many or they lost their jobs. The Obama Administration wanted to give some relief and prevent foreclosure for some of these American families who were being tossed out into the street. But it seems that America, at least the ruling corporate class, under neoliberalism has become much more cruel than in the past. It was considered fine to bail out the banks and other businesses, but not homeowners and skew the market. And this was not considered fair to all those hard-working Americans who actually had a job and paid their mortgages. There was a reaction among business to any effort to do anything to save families who were losing their homes. The Chicago rant was probably not so important, but it provided the pretext and the footage which could be blown up used to portray the image of populist outrage. It could provide the catalyst that conservative media and big corporations needed to mobilize against Obama’s new social programs to bring American back to the political center.
Particularly, it was Fox TV news that jumped on the campaign to raise a hue and cry against those families who would benefit from Obama’s plan. Vulnerable or susceptible to such propaganda were the older conservatives or ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party. The so-called Tea Party was born. It was Fox TV that began the effort to mobilize older conservative voters in the Republican Party, many of them ultra-conservatives and most over sixty-five years of age.
Fox TV engaged in the business of organizing and and broadcasting political rallies, tea parties, and encouraged citizens to organize local groups in their own communities. While this was being billed as a “grass roots movement,” it was actually being organized from the top by the conservative media of the Republican Party. The billionaire funded foundations and think tanks saw the opportunity to use this so-called revolt to block any progressive legislation, and move the Republican Party even farther to the right . It was not so much a revolt as resentment toward giving benefits to those they saw as a new and undeserving community of Americans who were younger, more ethnically diverse, immigrants, and sometimes better educated. They were seen as lacking the old-fashioned work ethic traditionally praised in America.
Those who did choose to act and organize to head off any and all Obama efforts to change America were generally older white well-off Americans, but many of these still depended upon the basic social services of the US Government, particularly Social Security and Medicare. Almost all of these Tea Partiers have benefited from government programs in the past, such as student loans and grants, help for a small business, and many other programs.
However, many older conservative Americans felt that they had worked hard throughout their lives and deserved what assistance they received, but that the new generation of Americans, which included blacks, hispanics, other immigrants, university students, gays, and so on, were wanting to get the same benefits without working for them, and wanting to get more benefits by getting older Americans to pay higher taxes so that they would not have to work.
Fox TV used crude scare tactics. From the broadcasts which they saw on the Fox box, conservative Americans believed that the Social Security system was bankrupt and about to collapse and were frightened by Islamic terrorism, mostly pure fabrications. There is no danger of the Social Security system collapsing any time soon, and any future shortfall can easily be remedied. Some 62 percent of the Tea Partier Americans supported Social Security and Medicare but that was not the case for the corporate sector.
After Fox TV broadcasts, some Americans were so worried about economic collapse that they stored eighteen months worth of food in their houses. They worried that the values of their houses had sharply declined due to the housing crises and also worried about their retirement accounts which had taken a hit. They were afraid of higher taxes just when there was less money to live on.
The religious factor was also there. Some forty percent of those jumping on the Tea Party bandwagon were evangelical Christians. They believed that teaching about environmentalism in the schools was false propaganda victimizing young students. They were fighting mad at university scientists and experts who said global warming was a threat. Again Fox TV has presented climate change as a hoax by the liberals. Many also hated the intellectual elite, including the President who was onice a university professor. Many were tied into the strong anti-intellectual thread in American society that helped to reward them with officials such as former President George W. Bush.
The billionaire funded organizations jumped in with an effort to unite many of the local groups under their umbrella, groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works and Citizens for a Sound Economy. These are actually corporate public relations fronts posing as grass-roots organizations. They are funded by super wealth, such as that from David and Charles Koch and the Olin Foundation. The Koch brothers are sons of Fred Koch, who was a founding member of the John Birch Society, an extreme right-wing group prominent in the 1960s. These organizations work mainly to remove regulations from businesses and lower taxes. But today they are also pushing a hard-right agenda to completely abolish Social Security and Medicare for future generations of Americans. Big business will either benefit from lower taxes, or reap the profits of managing the Social Security funds once it is privatized.
Both proposals to get rid of Social Security and to end Medicare, are not supported by those older Americans who joined tea party groups, but it is interesting that the big corporate front groups are using these elderly citizens to push an agenda that helps the super rich become even richer and which actually goes against the interests of the Tea Partiers themselves. In a way, they are being victimized by their own gullibility and the right-wing charletans who are pulling the wool over their eyes. The top one percent of the wealthy in America owns one-third of the wealth.
While these elderly citizens have some education and expertise about how to act to help block or push legislation, they can indeed be very gullible to the propaganda dished up by Fox TV and the right wing. One example is believing that environmentalism and constructing bike lanes is a United Nations plot to impose a “global totalitarian dictatorship” on the world.
These older busy bees mastered the technicalities of manipulating the political process and getting bills passed or blocked in state legislatures and in Washington, but in so doing, they risk hoisting themselves upon their own petards if the right-wing billionaire funders get their way and crush the people’s main salvation, Social Security, passed in the days of the Great Depresssion by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A central red flag for the Tea Party has been the frantic fear about President Obama’s health plan. It is a very watered down health law by any international standards, and does not even include a public option for state-operated health care, but the large scale fear mongering has turned large numbers of people against it, who would likely benefit the most. Sadly, the program passed under Obama, The Affordable Health Care Act, is the most that can be hoped for given the dynamics of American politics and ideology. Fox TV has spread the misinformation that the new program will set up “death panels”where Governmnet officials will decide who gets medical care and who does not. Simply, with this kind of politics, the American people will continue to suffer.
Fox is again guilty here. It is surely shameful that the US is the only developed post-industrial country which does not provide government backed health care for its people. But even such a minimal program meets stiff opposition from the very people who need it most. It amuses me greatly when I hear a politician like Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich piping up and warning the people to be careful about voting for “liberals”or “we are going to start looking just like Europe.” I am sorry, America, but you are not about to start looking like Europe any time soon. It would be good if you would, but you are not going to. To be sure, the situation in Europe is not great, but people do have some political perspective and a great deal more political consciousness. There is a political left and people have some idea about what left and right is. America is completely without a clue in comparison.
The tea partiers want to see America as it was when they were young, the America they remember from the past. This is, in most cases, an idealization which never really existed. The “good old days” were never as good as people remember. The l950s saw the McCarthyist days when people were being put in jail and losing their jobs and chance to work becaue of their political beliefs. The l960s was torn by the imperialist war the US launched against Vietnam. America controlled the world with its mass production and exports at the peak of its power in the post-war period. But today the world has moved on. The American soufle is not going to rise again. American global corporations are milking the global economy for profits, while bringing down the American economy. If things keep going like they are under the corporate managers, the Tea Partiers will not have to worry about immigration. Americans are increasingly starting to leave America themselves for greener pastures elsewhere in the world. Many Indian expatriats find the grass greener back home today. Even the Mexicans are starting to go back to their own country where there are more opportunities.
It is estimated that some 200,000 Americans have had some association with local tea party groups by this time. This is actually a quite small drop in the bucket of the US electorate, but their political influence has been out of all proportion to the numbers. The authors believe that the 2010 Presidential election is a crucial election. It is not very clear if the Tea Party has shot its wad but it seems to be fading. Tea partiers hate Mitt Romney, because he is seen as too liberal, but it looks like he will the the Repiblican candidate for President. It becomes clear that the Tea party was never the phenomenon that the media came to falsely present. It was never a real grass-roots movement and generally just represents the mobilization of right-wing Republican populism, that has been successful in moving the Republican Party even farther to the Right. It has resulted in the election of significant numbers of right-wing state officials and some right wing representatives and senators in Washington in the 2010 mid-term election. Also three right-wing state Governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida were elected partly through Tea party. Efforts have been launched in these states to crush all public sector unions and many social programs that help the poor. This has happened with the help and funding of right wing business moguls like the Koch brothers.
If President Obama losses the 2012 election, the ultlra-right forces might be able to privatize Social Security, and get rid of Medicare and Obama Care. This would be a disaster for future generations.
If Obama wins another four-year term, then the struggle will go on, but the fate of the Tea Party is uncertain. Contrary to the corporate media hype, it is not popular. Broad and bitter struggles are ongoing against the agenda of the right wing governers, such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, in their efforts to destroy public sector trade unions, and it may be that the people will give the Republicans a back lash if they keep pushing such a radical right wing agenda. The Tea Party is certainly way to the right of the people and perhaps getting too far to the right to mobilize voters and win elections, even with the help of the non-stop fabrications from Fox idiot Box propaganda.
As far as the election goes, perhaps much depends upon how many people actually vote. The Republican Party knows that they will go down to defeat again if large numbers of people actually turn out and vote, so conservative officials have been working overtime to make it harder for people to vote around the country. So much for American democracy.
If the people stay home, disgruntled by Obama’s lack of success,”then Romney will win and the conservatives will hang the people from an even higher limb than the one they are being hanged on now. The Tea Party phenomena, mostly drummed up by corporate money, has paid great dividends for the moneyed elites. But their approach has been angry, demanding, and absolutist, refusing any compromises. It appears that Americans may be beginning to get a little tired of such dangerous political extremism. One can only hope.
This book by Skocpol and Williamson does a good job of clearing up just what the Tea Party in America is all about. It shows that the billionaires and corporations have been able to throw their money around and mostly get the laws they need in wild capitalist America. The big money game goes on even more wildly during this 2012 election year. The Fox Idiot Box has helped to push American politics even farther to the right. It is not the change that most Americans hoped to see.
April 25, 2012