Why are the Republicans so mean-spirited when it comes to “the poor” and so indulgent when it comes to “the rich”? That’s the incessant question as posed by liberals today about the party’s now enacted “tax reform.” Not only does the bill include another attack on Obamacare, but it provides the pretext — the need to reduce deficits — to go after other long-held goals, the end of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
The answer should be obvious by now. Republicans behave as they do because they can get away with it! It’s no more complicated than that.
Contrary to liberal opinion, Republican politics isn’t out of the mainstream — provided we push the clock back sufficiently. A political economy without social services and entitlements is in fact the default position of the capitalist mode of production from its inception. If recent comments from Republican Sens. Orin Hatch and Charles Grassley sound like characters from a Charles Dickens novel — their barely disguised contempt for the working poor — that should come as no surprise. Such attitudes were almost de rigueur for ruling elites in capital’s long ascent. The constant refrain of the rich — “Why should we be taxed to pay for the education of the children of the irresponsible poor?” — explains why public school education became a widely accepted norm only in the 20th century.
Determinant in the eventual enactment of social benefits was ruling-class fear of the working class — violence or the threat of violence on their part. The 1848 Revolution in France birthed the first jobs program for the unemployed. That Germany, with the largest and most powerful working class political party in Europe, was the first major country to institute social security is no accident. Otto von Bismarck clearly saw the program as a way to buy social peace. In England, elites like John Stuart Mill advocated for public schools because of their fear of “uneducated” workers who might become voters.
The Great Depression: workers in the streets
The New Deal in the United States had a similar origin. The Great Depression forced workers into the streets in protest, beginning with the Bonus March of World War I veterans in Washington, D.C., in 1932. Organized labor battles in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco between 1934 and 1936 obligated the ruling class concessions of Social Security, unemployment insurance and Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC) — the most consequential of the social programs. (Keep in mind, contra what standard economics would expect, that the wealth redistribution — the biggest after Abraham Lincoln’s expropriation of the slave owners — took place in the context of a shrinking economy.) The much-applauded G.I. Bill was motivated by elite fear of another Bonus March by World War II veterans. These programs were supplemented later with Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 owing to the power of the civil rights movement. All of these social entitlements were, in other words, the exception to the rule of U.S. capital and granted under duress.
But the social movements and fear of them that had spurred ruling class concessions were soon house broken—“out of the streets into the suites” as their swan song came to be called. Because the Democratic Party had been in office when the concessions were made, it was the chief electoral beneficiary of that cooptation. Nothing in its history, however — the party of the slave owners and their descendants — would have predicted its modern image as the more progressive of the two capitalist parties. Historical contingency makes for a more convincing explanation.
With the social movements safely ensconced in and bridled by the Democratic Party and, thus, the working class in all its skin colors and other identities no longer seen as a threat, capitalist politics could revert to its default position of business, literally, as usual. That’s the course the Reagan administration embarked on in 1981 and whose result, the present “tax reform” bill, is simply the most recent victory in redistributing wealth to the rich and chipping away at social benefits. Think also, for example, the continual reduction in funding public education at all levels.
How Dems aided and abetted
But indispensable for political clarity is the need to recognize — given the lesser/evil justification for liberal support for them — how the Dems have aided and abetted the Republican campaign to re-establish a social entitlement-free U.S. The first successful attack on the New Deal — and with all of the social carnage in its wake — was the Clinton administration’s ending in 1996 of one of its three pillars, AFCD, in the name of “welfare reform.” The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal gleefully seized on that inconvenient fact for Dems to justify its unsuccessful call earlier this year for the end of the Medicaid component of Obamacare. Dems also enabled the 1986 Reagan and 2001 Bush tax breaks to the rich. And Barack Obama was willing to lower corporate tax rates from 35 to 28 percent, not that far off what the current GOP bill does. Objectively, at least, the Dems are the Republicans’ co-conspirator.
Liberals have always feared the masses in the streets; Luther and Tocqueville were respectively the early modern and modern prototypes. If there is any doubt that leading U.S. liberal voices are in accord about not wanting a replay of the turbulent ’30s and ’60s, consider their nearly unanimous answer to how to counter the Republican offensive: wait until the next elections! Never mind that the Republicans have learned how to game elections, to craft a bill whose anti-working-class consequences won’t be seen for a number of election cycles. No wonder they feel confident that they can get away with it, once again.
Whenever you hear the timeworn liberal mantra that the most important political thing you can do is to vote, ask yourself: If that’s true, then how did those who couldn’t vote get that right? Exactly because we, in all our diverse identities in the centuries-old fight for the suffrage, had been in or threatened to go into the streets. I personally know that to be the real truth after having been denied that right owing to my skin color.
As long as the U.S. working class lacks its own political party, one that actively fights in its interests, the Republicans will do their thing — and be successful if not met with any kind of credible resistance as the effective protests in defense of Medicaid demonstrated. But 20th- and 21st-century social democracy, not just in Europe but elsewhere such as Brazil, teaches that it isn’t enough for the working class to have its own political party. It also requires a party that has a working-class program that it actually fights to advance. Otherwise workers become demoralized, opening the door for others who claim to advance their interests. Never should it be forgotten what the official name of Hitler’s party was: the National Socialist German Workers Party. The tragic costs of that monstrous deception continue to reverberate.
August H. Nimtz Jr. is a professor of political science and African American and African Studies and Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Minnesota.