Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
In the age of Obama and right-wing politics, people who share many of my political interests often ask me why I’m so hard on the Democratic Party. I am also criticized frequently for my views toward the Republican Party, but most people seem to understand why I hold these views. The reasons for both sets of opinions are more similar than many might expect.
What I see as important about government is in no small measure a result of my parents living through the Great Depression and World War II. I grew up with an indelible impression that it was possible for government policies to make this society better than it was, both economically and in international relations, just as government policies had led to many of the problems government later corrected. My dissatisfaction is with both political parties. I’ll start with the Democrats.
When I first became involved with politics around 1962, I chose the Democratic Party over the Republican Party. I had grown up in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, which had been served for many years by Congressman Jack Brooks, one of the last progressive congressmen from Texas, who was driven from office in 1994 by the Republican take-over of the House led by Newt Gingrich.
Lyndon Johnson as a U.S. Senator was still fresh in my memory. He had been able to get things done for the people who did not have wealth and influence, and he had empathy for those who had been left out of America’s prosperity. I went to college in Johnson’s old congressional district, so there were many people around who had first-hand stories of his legislative abilities.
Less than two years into his presidency, after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Johnson pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Medicare in 1965.
Although Johnson lost his footing in foreign policy, his domestic agenda inspired me. I spent almost 12 of the 19 years between 1965 and 1984 working full-time in one aspect or another of the War on Poverty. I was in college or law school for four of those 19 years. I worked in programs conceived and implemented originally through the EOA: job training, VISTA, tutorials for under-achieving youth, financial services for low-income families, housing, Head Start, family planning, summer recreation for youth, and legal services. In 1984, I left full-time involvement in the War on Poverty to pursue my legal career first in a public service position and then back to a private law practice.
During my adult life, the legislative accomplishments of the Johnson years were primarily supported by progressive Democrats and moderate Republicans. Support in Congress for the Voting Rights Act was considerably bi-partisan; the Civil Rights Act, less so. But the Economic Opportunity Act did not receive anything close to majority Republican support, with Republicans voting about 5 to 1 against the legislation. So it is no surprise that most of the opposition heard today to the programs I worked in come from those who tilt toward the Republican Party, or are part and parcel of it. And Democrats have become unreliable supporters of progressive legislation, that is, legislation that seeks to even out the social and economic inequities of our society.
Nevertheless, historically many Democrats and Republicans supported legislation that made this a more equal, fair, and just country. That support began to change dramatically after 1968, but did not erode significantly until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. We have learned in recent years that the election of Reagan was made possible by a concerted right-wing effort to control the Republican Party that began after the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, aided in no small measure by the defection of racist southern Democrats who could not abide desegregation. Others in the Democratic Party became adherents to the philosophy of neo-liberalism, a view that suited Republicans more than progressive Democrats.
I left the Democratic Party in 1992, after the nomination of Bill Clinton, whose neo-liberal positions helped George W. Bush and his neo-conservatives move this country into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, near the end of Bush’s 8 years in office.
During Clinton’s campaign in 1992, he used the execution of a mentally-retarded African-American, Ricky Ray Rector, in Arkansas (which he served as governor at the time), as a way to send a message to whites and right-wingers that he was tough on crime, especially crime committed by minorities with dark skin. Symbolism is important in politics, and Clinton’s actions served to show that he was no LBJ Democrat. He was a new kind of liberal. While “neo-liberal” was first applied to economic matters, I find it a useful label for many public-policy positions of the Clinton and Obama years.
Earlier, neo-liberalism was associated with finding a third way between capitalism and communism. For Clinton, it meant finding ways to deal with both social and economic problems somewhere between liberal and conservative ideals. Since there is little agreement about what neo-liberalism means, I will use the term in this sense and by looking at the policies it has produced.
During Clinton’s two terms in office, he and his cohorts in the Congress, using Orwellian double-speak, enacted some of the cruelest, most anti-family welfare changes imaginable. They called them “welfare reform.” Clinton campaigned on the idea that people could be on welfare for two years and then they would have to get jobs – no more welfare. This position ignored economic cycles, the availability of jobs, job skills, family needs, and the actual way the welfare system worked. Once the Republicans tried to wrest back welfare reform as a political issue from Clinton, it was a race to see who could pander most successfully to the vast majority of the electorate that either don’t know or don’t care about the facts.
Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science and sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, who has studied the poor and the welfare system more thoroughly than anyone else I know, points to the mistaken focus on out-of-wedlock births, along with racism and sexism, to explain the faulty Clintonian (and Republican) reasoning about welfare:
“[The data show] that the United States has much stingier relief programs and much higher rates–three to six times higher–of out-of-wedlock births among teenagers than Western European countries. And we can show the same thing within the United States, that more generous states do not have higher out-of-wedlock birth rates. But the facts don’t matter. . . . [T]he federal politicians have been arguing that the fact that many people leave welfare and go back proves that there is some sort of addictive quality to receiving welfare. But I think it’s more logical to think that welfare helps people–mainly women raising families alone–cope with very unstable circumstances. And if people have the chance to improve their material circumstances and improve their standing in the community, they take it. We would solve the welfare problem, it would just evaporate, if we made it possible for people to earn enough money to keep their families afloat, and gave them assurance that they could see a doctor if the child got sick, and provided daycare. Most women would go off welfare if we did this.”
And of even greater importance, “welfare reform” has not worked because sufficient jobs that will support a family and that match the skill levels of those who want to work do not exist. Piven’s research demonstrates that the welfare-to-work requirement has not reformed the welfare system. It has only made the plight of poor families worse than before the reforms were enacted.
During Clinton’s term, we also got NAFTA (an enormous US job killer), the end of the federal government’s promise to provide affordable housing for the poor, the deregulation of the airwaves, the deregulation of the banks (notably, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act that had prevented banks from gambling with depositors’ money), foreign policy decisions like the indiscriminate bombing of the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq (along with the most irrational and draconian sanctions imaginable), and the privatization and outsourcing of public services to benefit business interests, largely to the detriment of the public.
One neo-liberal idea (which began with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank), was health care insurance reform that put the insurance companies in charge, giving them increased profits and control over the health care marketplace. This neo-liberal (and neo-conservative) idea found its way from Clinton’s failed efforts in that area into Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The ACA may be a step in the right direction (in both meanings of the term “right”), but it is a poor excuse for effective public policy. I know this because I have been on Medicare, a very effective (though not perfect) health insurance program for over four years. I doubt it could be passed through Congress today.
Political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., recently summed up the problem with electoral politics in the US: “[O]n 80 percent of the issues, on which 80 percent of the population is concerned, 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between [the two major political parties].” I will grant that the 20% of differences can be important, but as President Obama moves into his sixth year in office, the 20% is beginning to look more like 2% to me.
Even if Obama had not faced the virulent racism which continues to swirl around him, he would not have governed differently. Of course, that shouldn’t excuse the abuse he has endured. More people need to call out Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly (and others) for constantly referring to Obama as a communist or socialist. As Reed has suggested, those words are merely substitutes for their unwillingness in public to say that “there’s a nigger in the White House.” That’s what they mean. No one with a scintilla of rationality can believe that Obama is a communist or socialist.
We do have one real socialist in public office at the national level – Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – and his political ideas are barely to the left (if they are) of FDR. In fact, as Reed has pointed out, before the election of 1944, 68% of the respondents in a Roper poll said that they required the political and economic system, whatever it is called, to be based on the premise that anyone “willing and able to work should have a right to a job.”
Over two-thirds of adults believed that nearly 70 years ago. It would not surprise me to find the same result today, but our governance is so skewed toward right-wing ideology that there is no way to find a job for everyone who wants one. Of course, many people then thought that “full employment” meant no more than 2% unemployment. That figure now has grown to at least 6%, a number more pleasing to the pure capitalists among us who want to keep workers and the labor movement insecure, diminished, and under control.
The attitude of most Republicans and many Democrats is understood best by looking at the positions of the party faithful toward food support for the poor, what used to be called “food stamps.” The view is one of callous indifference, buttressed by the notion that helping people will just make them weak. Yet they don’t make the same argument about private food assistance to those same poor.
Timothy Egan in the New York Times (3-16-14) compared the attitude of the half-Irish Paul Ryan toward food support with the attitude of the British government toward the Irish during the potato famine of the 1840s. (Ryan’s Irish forebears fled Ireland for America to escape the devastation of the potato famine.) Egan explains that “the Irish were starving to death at the very time that rich stores of grain and fat livestock owned by absentee landlords were being shipped out of the country. The food was produced by Irish hands on Irish lands but would not go into Irish mouths, for fear that such ‘charity’ would upset the free market, and make people lazy.”
For Paul Ryan and most Republicans, along with far too many Democrats, the poor are poor because they have a character flaw, yet Ryan can’t even tell true stories about them, inventing nonsense by parroting make-believe tales spun by the right-wing media, suggesting that food assistance destroys the very souls of the children who receive it. In my elementary school in the 1950s, every child was able to buy milk for only 4 cents a carton, but no one was damaged emotionally or otherwise by that subsidy (which also aided the farmers who produced the milk).
As Egan makes clear, Ryan’s view is precisely the view of the aristocrats of 19th century England: “The hungry millions were ‘a selfish, perverse, and turbulent’ people, said the man in charge of relieving their plight.” Yet, no Republican or Democratic opponent of food support to hungry people ever laments how price supports to farmers or payments to farmers not to grow food destroy their character.
As author Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, quoted by Egan, put it: “The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect. It’s a dangerous, mean-spirited and tired argument.”
And such arguments are just as tired and mean-spirited and wrong today in America. But most of today’s politicians from both parties don’t care to find and speak the truth about all of our ills. They would rather continue to believe the fantasies that fit Ayn Rand’s warped world view, as well as Paul Ryan’s racist world view (which is used to appeal to white ethnic voters). Ryan doesn’t seem to realize that whites make up more of today’s poor (42%) than any other demographic group and receive 69% of public assistance benefits, according to government figures.
The policies of the neo-liberals of the Democratic party and the neo-conservatives of the Republican party suppress wages for all working people, drive more wealth to the wealthy, and result in income inequality for the rest of us. These same policies have destroyed the American middle class that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. They have led to what economists call “structural unemployment” – there are more people seeking jobs than there are jobs that they are qualified to fill.
Both decent jobs and adequate food support are essential ingredients for the health of the country. Too few politicians of either major party recognize this and are willing to act to make it a reality. Instead, they say and do what appeals to their wealthy sponsors and to the basest instincts of the voters on whom they rely to be elected and re-elected.
LAMAR W. HANKINS, a former San Marcos city attorney, has written the Freethought San Marcos column for the San Marcos Mercury since 2008. © Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos