Republicans claim that societies hurt their own citizens by trying to offer benefits that are supposed to lift up people who are economically on the bottom, but which instead turn them into persistent burdens dependent on public support. This specious argument has had a long shelf life; it goes on and on interminably it seems. The opposite point of view is that a society, especially a democratic society, has a social contract with its citizens that includes compassion when misfortune strikes, compassion backed by economic support and the creation of opportunities for folks to rise out of their misfortune. There are generally two parties in any argument (0r more) and that is the case with this ideologically blockaded contretemps which is currently raging quietly in all our politics. It seems to be a matter which will not die out or be resolved through discussion. The GOP actually has been bashing Democrats and backing meanness for some time. They accuse the Democrats of encouraging dependency and thereby creating the stark inequalities in our economics. The Democrats are beginning to feel that they need to be apologetic for programs which they thought would work to end poverty because these programs have not wiped out poverty.
Joel Kotkin, in the April 30 edition of The Daily Beast writes about “The Arrogance of Blue America” with this precap:
“If you want to see the worst impacts of blue policies, go to those red regions—like upstate New York or inland California—in states they control.”
He goes on to say, “The essential logic—as laid out in a particularly acerbic piece in The New Republic—is that Trump’s America is not only socially deplorable, but economically moronic as well. The kind-hearted blue staters have sent their industries to the abodes of the unwashed, and taken in their poor, only to see them end up “more bitter, white, and alt-right than ever.”
Ouch! If this sounds like a valid criticism of Democrats that is because not all areas in New York State or California have prospered. It is also somewhat true that it seemed surprising that the rural areas in both of these states came down on the side of Donald Trump. And while it is true that these folks seem quite ready to blame immigrants and seem to fear a time when America will no longer be a majority white nation, to say that we classify our farmers and ex-factory workers, our neighbors, as alt-right goes a bit far. We might feel that they have listened to a bit too much talk radio and that we have been living in fairly segregated enclaves, especially if they do not live in a city, but we do not see our Trumpian neighbors as neo-Nazi’s however impatient we may be with their insularity and their intolerance. I also have not heard Democrats utter a word about people not expressing proper gratitude for benefits offered by government programs. I have heard some people say that there are people who benefit from such programs who are not aware of who funds those benefit programs. (I do not count people who receive money from Medicare and Social Security because they paid in to these programs throughout their lives and no one ever said that people were not paying enough in to support what they are getting paid out.)
Mr. Kotkin has more bitterness and bile to deliver. He continues,
The fondest hope among the blue bourgeoise lies with the demographic eclipse of their red-state foes. Some clearly hope that the less-educated “dying white America,“ already suffering shorter lifespans, in part due to alcoholism and opioid abuse, is destined to fade from the scene. Then the blue lords can take over a country with which they can identify without embarrassment.”
Well I always say that Republicans love to try to turn the tables by saying that the Democrats are guilty of GOP sins, and this is a doozey. Democrats are not the one’s touting a punitive new health care plan that will actually shorten lifespans in America and make the rich richer.
There is some data in the article that seems to back up Kotkin’s masterpiece of inside-out thinking. However there are other arguments to be made that blast some pretty big holes in his thinking and pontificating. First of all we know that no matter what humans do it always turns out to have both positive and negative effects because paradox seems to be the rule (because we sinned in the Garden). (Or because physics says that every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, although I don’t think Newton was describing the human condition when he observed and gave us his succinct summation of those observations.) While it is true that social programs are intended to do good; it can also be true that these same programs can have some negative outcomes. It is difficult to prove exactly how much socio/economic progress has been made when things look so similar to the way they looked when we started these programs. How many children got further in school because they had a healthy lunch (or indeed, any lunch)? How many parents were able to leave a poor neighborhood and move on to a better life? How much did economic events like the Great Migration of our factories and the bursting of the housing bubble hurt those who were just beginning to rise?
Republicans have never liked social programs, although they have become far more strident about it recently. Social programs always had to involve some punishment even if it was just lots of bureaucracy and paperwork, invasion of privacy, and public stigma. Accepting aid intended to lift one up actually had aspects designed-in that made recipients feel very low. Would the Dems have required the same kinds of accountability without the nagging of the Conservatives? Would programs that offered assistance without moral excoriation have done better?
Has the Democratic Party simply “ripped off” the less fortunate and pocketed the proceeds? Has the Democratic Party become a party that gives lip service to championing those who are less affluent, as Kotkin suggests, or is the party sincerely analyzing past performance and trying to create programs that are more effective in the 21st century? Did Mr. Kotkin write this article for cynical reasons to make sure that the Democrats stay under a shadow of hypocrisy in order to continue the propaganda campaign that created Trump voters in the first place? There are two different answers to every one of these questions.
Since we cannot argue this out, since the lessons of history are no longer enough to keep us from having to actually try meanness in real politics and society to see if it works as badly as it did for the first 17 centuries of human existence, we are going to put the principles of tough love into practice. We are going to dismantle social programs, entrust all of our tax dollars to a Federal government with very few duties, and see how that turns out? It will take another 75-100 years, possibly, to appreciate the effects of this social experiment. Will it have good effects? Since everything we do is both good and bad you can bet on it. Who will this dispassionate society be good for? My guess is that it will not lift up lots of poor or disabled people. It will just make the world drearier and more dangerous and far less hygienic. Despite the tough love approach or because of it, Kotkin tells us, people are moving into red (Trump) states in droves and this is for political reasons, (but his time line seems wrong).
As for the original contention of Mr. Kotkin that Democrats have failed in the very states where they do hold control to spread the wealth well enough that Donald Trump’s message would not be able to gain a foothold, there is no one simple answer. Large metropolitan areas seem to be less effected by and to recover faster from economic downturns than less populated areas. While this may not have been true when our factories kept people’s wages up, in our current service economy where wages are low recovery has been slow. Could the Democrats in power have been less selfish and offered better subsidies to areas that have been hit hard? Probably. Do Democrats fail to remind America that they are a party that will keep trying to help people rise as often as they should? Maybe. Are Democrats so affluent and intellectual as a party that they are unable to summon policies that make them the party of the common man as they have traditionally styled themselves? Perhaps. It may be only the Progressives who can now stand on the ground that the Democratic Party once occupied. Taking the word of a party that wants to turn America into a one Party system is like letting Russia give advice to the American President. (Oh, oh that might have already happened.)
Power corrupts. We have all learned this lesson well. Perhaps the Democrats have become a party of “fat cats” with no fresh ideas about how to make our society more fair and our economic prosperity distribute itself more equally, or too selfish to want to give up their intellectual high ground. I am hearing these critiques of the Democrats from everyone, not just Republicans. Bashing Democrats seems to be all the rage. Naively or not, I would still far rather have the Democrats in charge. They try to be self-aware and they want to protect our Democracy instead of undermining it. But I am feeling a little lonely lately.
(Here’s an interesting piece of analysis which appeared recently in the New York Times which points out how complicated the matter of approaching social/economic parity really is:
Did people set out to improve schooling or pretend to improve it while maintaining ethnic/class separations? Did they do both? Did they give with one hand and take away with the other? Who is at fault?)