The economic collapse of 2008 transformed American politics. In place of shared abundance, battles at every level of government now focus on picking the losers who will bear the costs of deficit reduction and austerity.
Fights in Washington are over inflicting pain on antagonists either through spending cuts or tax increases, a struggle over who will get a smaller piece of a shrinking pie. This hostile climate stands in sharp contrast to the post-World-War II history of economic growth. Worse, current income and employment trends suggest that this is not a temporary shift.
The year 2008 marked the emergence of a Democratic Party driven by surging constituencies of minorities, single women and voters under 30. The flowering of this coalition, manifested in the election of President Obama and in continued Democratic control of Congress, was quickly followed by developments affirming the activist, redistributive state: the enactment of a $787 billion economic stimulus bill, passage of the $900 billion health care reform act and rising demand for food stamps, unemployment compensation and Medicaid...
As the national debt grew from $10.6 trillion when Obama took office to $13.7 trillion on Election Day 2010, the stage was set for a conservative revival. Conservatives successfully shifted the focus of American politics to the twin themes of debt and austerity — with a specific attack on means-tested entitlement programs.
The Republican Party, after winning back control of the House in 2010, has reverted to the penny-pinching of an earlier era, the green eyeshade Grand Old Party of Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft, advocating a “root canal” approach to governance…
The new embattled partisan environment allows conservatives to pit taxpayers against tax consumers, those dependent on safety-net programs against those who see such programs as eating away at their personal income and assets.
In a nuanced study, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” the sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol and her colleagues at Harvard found that opposition to government spending was concentrated on resentment of federal government “handouts.” Tea Party activists, they wrote, “define themselves as workers, in opposition to categories of nonworkers they perceive as undeserving of government assistance.”
In a March 15 declaration calling for defunding of most social programs, the New Boston Tea Party was blunt: “The locusts are eating, or should we say devouring, the productive output of the hard working taxpayer.”
The conservative agenda, in a climate of scarcity, racializes policy making, calling for deep cuts in programs for the poor. The beneficiaries of these programs are disproportionately black and Hispanic. In 2009, according to census data, 50.9 percent of black households, 53.3 percent of Hispanic households and 20.5 percent of white households received some form of means-tested government assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid and public housing.
Less obviously, but just as racially charged, is the assault on public employees. “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” declared Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.
For black Americans, government employment is a crucial means of upward mobility. The federal work force is 18.6 percent African-American, compared with 10.9 percent in the private sector. The percentages of African-Americans are highest in just those agencies that are most actively targeted for cuts by Republicans: the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 38.3 percent; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 42.4 percent; and the Education Department, 36.6 percent.
The politics of austerity are inherently favorable to conservatives and inhospitable to liberals. Congressional trench warfare rewards those most willing to risk all. Republicans demonstrated this in last summer’s debt ceiling fight, deploying the threat of a default on Treasury obligations to force spending cuts.
Conservatives are more willing to inflict harm on adversaries and more readily see conflicts in zero-sum terms …
Still, conservatives have a tendency to overestimate public support for their agenda and consequently to overreach: recall the two government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996; the 1998 Clinton impeachment; and the Ryan budget, which gave Democrats a recent victory in upstate New York.
Most signs point toward a relentless continuation of struggle in the context of austerity. Congress faces self-imposed deadlines of Nov. 23 and Dec. 23 to approve a deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion over 10 years, or accept across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion...
Republicans are playing with fire, though, when they threaten American standing in the world, as they did in provoking Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States’ credit rating to AA+ from AAA in August. Confidence in Congressional Republicans fell 36 points after the debt ceiling debacle, compared with a 22-point drop for Mr. Obama...
In many respects, austerity feeds on itself. If the country needs to invest in education and rebuilding infrastructure to regain competitiveness, as many economists of varying ideological stripes argue, those initiatives are in large part precluded in a political environment that places top priority on deficit and debt reduction. Retrenchment, in effect, becomes a noose, choking off prospects for growth.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
"Root canal" governance
Thomas Edsall at the NYTs on the politics of austerity: