Big vs. small government, Blue vs. Red states, the Union vs. the Confederacy: each of these pairings represents different iterations on a recurring theme in the history of American politics. Now, more than ever in recent memory, these competing ideologies are emerging as polar opposites that threaten to drive the US political establishment into a stalemate. For progressives, there is the warranted fear that this deadlock is quickly devolving into a zero-sum game, in which the extreme conservatism of the Right has already won.
As I watched the Tea Party-sponsored Republican debate, I was disturbed by the lack of compassion for the disadvantaged touted by several of the candidates, Ron Paul in particular. Bolstered by applause from the audience, Paul infamously responded to a scenario in which an uninsured but able-bodied young man suddenly requires six months of intensive care and is unable to pay for his medical treatment. When asked whether “society should let him die,” Paul, a physician, no less, unflinchingly answered: “That’s what freedom is all about — taking your own risks.” While I found his answer appalling, I have to admit that I was impressed by Paul’s resolve to commit, without reservation, to ideology, particularly in an age when politicians are notorious for abandoning values for campaign contributions (though I was reassured to hear that GOP frontrunner Rick Perry refuses to be bought for a meagre $5,000— another highlight from the debate).
The brand of conservatism embraced by Ron Paul is not only profoundly worrisome, its analytical foundations are also deeply misguided. The rallying point for the Republican Party and its factions from Paul to the Tea Party, is that there is little actual need for government, so its role should be as limited as possible. Ronald Reagan, deity of American Conservatism, expressed this sentiment in his 1981 inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Those who hold this view pride themselves on not taking any handouts and certainly refuse to offer them, viewing tax dollars spent on programs assisting those less fortunate as an instance of government overstepping its boundaries. They cling to the superficial notion that the American dream is a story about achieving success through perseverance and elbow grease, no matter the odds.
Horatio Alger, author of the original tales of Americans who’ve “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps” might as well be the unofficial mascot of the Tea Party (officially it’s a tie between Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman). What no one seems to bother to question is whether or not the heroes of Alger’s stories were able to “make it” without the help of federal programs. Did any of Alger’s characters attend a public school? Did they ever look to the local police or fire departments for help? Were their journeys ever facilitated by a public road or bridge? If the answer is ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, then the cult of the original American hero who made it through nothing but his own hard work and determination, is based on falsehood. The truth is, there are no success stories of people who’ve truly risen from poverty to security on their own, without (rightfully) taking advantage of some kind of federal program, from public education to basic infrastructure. Given the debate over the federal deficit, government spending on social services, such as Medicare and Social Security is under increased scrutiny, with many Republicans mounting an all-out assault. Sure, Alger’s novels were penned in the 19th-century, long before the arrival of these programs. Nonetheless, because they are beloved for their formulaic account of individuals rising from humble backgrounds into middle-class comfort, an accurate modern day retelling would have to feature Medicare and Social Security.
‘Broken,’ ‘polarized,’ ‘hopeless’—all of these have been used to describe the climate in Washington, where Republicans are signing party line pledges to oppose President Obama and branding a graduated income tax “class warfare.” What we have is political paralysis during a time when the American people most need their government to move the country forward and the economy upward. The Republican debates have shown, to the country’s detriment, the party’s penchant for extremism and disinterest for the facts. Ron Paul’s insistence on the overreach of government is so great that he calls for the privatization of basic social services, and Rick Perry claims (contrary to all available evidence) that the 2009 stimulus package created “zero jobs.” The dogma that has been more or less parroted by the entire cast of characters vying for the Republican nomination is that government’s function is minimal and finite: to provide security of property. This view is entirely incompatible with the progressive notion that government is analogous to a safety net, a provider of public goods that enables its citizens to achieve a certain quality of life. The irony is that, though Republicans criticize spending on social programs by Democratic presidents, it was the Bush administration that spent over one trillion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy. The macabre implication is that the Republicans have become the party of the patrician class, in support of a feeble social contract that provides as little as possible to the masses, and a model for government whose raison d’être is to enable its wealthiest citizens to achieve a quality of life unattainable to the rest. Class warfare, indeed.