Friday, September 17, 2010

Denigration and disenfranchisement: Glenn Beck, American conservatism, and the war on the poor

Yesterday morning, guest blogger T.W. Wilson posted on Glenn Beck and the right's war on the poor:

When poor people stand up for their rights, stand up against power, that power has always been very good at pushing them aside and, not infrequently, crushing them. American history is full of examples of poor people and poor workers destroyed by power. Call it class warfare if you like.

One of the problems is that the poor just don't have the resources, let alone the political clout, to stand up to this assault. Sure, there are many admirable anti-poverty advocates and organizations out there working hard on behalf of people who don't have much of a voice in Washington, but they wield little influence compared to the right's campaign of denigration and disenfranchisement. As Wilson notes:

[T]he right wing has cleverly twisted the truth to make its case. Health-care reform is well on its way to being successfully re-branded as another entitlement program for a slothful underclass. The Republican leadership talks about unemployment insurance like it's a reward for laziness amongst the needy. The sub-prime mortgage crisis is explained as poor people wanting a life to which they are not entitled (instead of the result of unscrupulous banking practices). Tax cuts for the ΓΌber-wealthy are taken to be a reward for obvious virtue, while the "have-nots" are assumed to deserve their meager lot. And lastly, opposition to progressive immigration reform is clearly a part of this narrative.

America's Puritan roots have a lot to do with this, obviously, with wealth seen as a sure sign of predestined salvation, as does American capitalism, which, developing alongside and to a certain extent out of Puritanism has created a cult of selfishness at the expense of community and social responsibility. In this sense, American society is seen less as an organic union and more as a loose collection of atomized individuals each out for his or her own good in a free market that is a sort of domesticated Hobbesian-Lockean state of nature.

In more immediate terms, though, it is political reality that drives much of this war on the poor -- and the reality is that the poor are likely not to vote Republican. Because of that, Republicans (and the conservatives behind it and within it) go to great lengths essentially to disenfranchise them, just as they went to great lengths to do the same to other groups who were for the most part non- or anti-Republican, including most notably blacks.

No, the disenfranchisement of the poor may not be formal policy, and the poor certainly to have the right to vote, but the right is nonetheless keeping many poor from full citizenship by denying them what they need to be full citizens, trying to take away various so-called entitlement programs such as Social Security, trying to remove what little security there is for those who do not succeed in the free market, such as unemployment benefits, and denying them access to health care and education, all the while working to slash government and prevent it from helping those who cannot help themselves and those who just need help getting back on their feet (the government is allowed to spend wildly on the military and national security, and may even be a Big Brother, bu it is not allowed to spend anywhere near that on social programs).

All this works to block the poor from participating fully as citizens, and from participating politically, much as voter registration rules used to block blacks from the polls. We saw this in '04 all around the country, including in Cuyahoga Country, Ohio -- the Cleveland area -- where, with Republicans running the state's elections, voters were subjected to extremely long line-ups at the polls and otherwise presented with obstacles to casting their votes.

And how do conservatives justify this? They don't. Or, rather, they don't have to. Legal discrimination, as in the past against blacks and others, is for the most part not allowed anymore. The right to vote simply cannot be denied. But the effective result of the policies and propaganda of the right is to reduce the poor essentially to sub-citizen (if not sub-human) status. According to this narrative, picked up by the media, the poor are, as Wilson writes, considered lazy and slothful, un-American and unworthy of citizenship. They may be thrown a few scraps, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world lacking compassion and understanding, let alone a genuine moral core, but that's about it. They certainly shouldn't be allowed to be politically powerful -- unless, that is, they can be manipulated into voting Republican, which is what Beck's brand of populism, one shared by the likes of Sarah Palin, is all about (in addition to the aggrandizement of Beck's and Palin's massive egos and in addition to making tons of money for themselves).

The poor are politically useful, you see, when they put aside their obvious economic needs and vote out of fear -- fear of the Other, as determined by the right. And they do this a lot. It's the other poor, the poor who aren't useful to Republicans, the poor who don't buy into the Republican narrative, who are effectively disenfranchised.

And the ranks of the poor are growing. As the Times reported yesterday:

The percentage of Americans struggling below the poverty line in 2009 was the highest it has been in 15 years, the Census Bureau reported Thursday, and interviews with poverty experts and aid groups said the increase appeared to be continuing this year.

As the country fights its way out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, four million additional Americans found themselves in poverty in 2009, with the total reaching 44 million, or one in seven residents. Millions more were getting by only because of expanded unemployment and other assistance.


The share of residents in poverty climbed to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest level recorded since 1994. The rise was steepest for children, with one in five affected, the bureau said. 

But what do Republicans, many Democrats, the media, and the powerful care about? Bank and auto bailouts, a continuation of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, opposition to any and all government-run health care (with the exception of Medicare, as the elderly can be frightened into voting Republican). The poor and their plight simply don't register -- except insofar as the right-wing war on the poor continues unabated, including with Republicans trying to block any and all government efforts to help the poor through this horrible economic time.

It is appalling that it has come to this. The poor have been spit out the bottom of American society, victims of a social, political, and economic system that rewards wealth. They lack a strong political voice in Washington compared to conservative interests, the media generally ignores them (or mostly regurgitates the conservative anti-poor narrative), and there is little opportunity for improvement despite all the up-with-America talk about mobility and self-reliance.

The poor simply don't matter, even as their numbers swell (and would have swelled more had it not been for government spending), and this allows Republicans, and conservatives generally, to win. It is their successful campaign of denigration that has reduced the poor to sub-citizen status. Politicians do little for them (all they really do is allocate the scraps) and they just don't have the votes, with so many of them disenfranchised, to make a difference on their own.

America, as I often say, can and must do better. But it will be hard for anything to get done with a campaign of relentless class warfare being waged by the rich and powerful against those without the means to fight back. And things only seem to be getting worse.

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