The Republican Party is lurching ever farther to the right, hunkering down into a narrower and narrower (white) constituency with an increasingly paranoid, fortress mentality. If we want to understand its appeal, and the dynamic that enables it to attack popular institutions like Social Security and Medicare without being substantially punished for it, we first need to face the root element of that appeal: racism.
Donald Trump has released his third budget, and once again, he broke his campaign promise not to touch Social Security. Once again, the largest vehicle for these cuts is what conservatives have come to regard as the soft underbelly of the system, Disability Insurance. Trump’s budget includes some $25 billion in “savings” from different aspects of Social Security, the largest of which is $10 billion from DI. And yet again, Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, say they’ll achieve the savings by mounting a strenuous campaign against “disability fraud.”
This is where it gets weird: funds lost through fraud are minuscule compared with the total size of the DI program, and it’s already extremely difficult and time-consuming for anyone to jump through all the hoops necessary to prove they qualify for benefits. Quite a few people die every year before their applications are approved (or not). Realistically, no huge savings will result from Trump’s anti-fraud crusade—but a lot of needy people will be inconvenienced or unjustly denied benefits.
Failure is not a problem when it comes to the budget priorities of the American right, however, because its ideological appeal to its audience is so intensely powerful. At no time, arguably, has this been more easily observable than today, when the president and his party make no pretense of speaking to anyone other than their most hardcore supporters. But what are the roots of this right-populist strategy, and how do they connect with long-time policies like dismantling Social Security and Medicare, which only draw really passionate support from the right and center-right wings of the policy-making establishment?
For some important clues to the answer, a good starting point is Unworkable Conservatism: Small Government, Free Markets, and Impracticality, by political scientist Max J. Skidmore, which appeared shortly after Trump took office and offers many valuable insights leading into the 2020 campaigns.
Conservative policies aren’t viable
Skidmore makes two vital points in his book. The first is that most if not all of the domestic policy ideas and solutions conservatives regularly push, “whenever implemented, have never been successful; they have proven not to be viable.”
Massive tax cuts, under the Reagan, George W. Bush, and now the Trump administrations, failed to pay for themselves. “Reforming” welfare under the center-right Clinton presidency failed to solve the problem of chronic poverty. Dispersing public-housing residents through the use of Section 8 vouchers failed to improve their lives. At the more ludicrous extreme, replacing sex education with abstinence-only instruction failed to stem teenage pregnancy. The list goes on.
In politics, however, failure is very often the breeding ground of success. Conservatives favor simple solutions to the problems of a complex society; when they don’t work, the implicit response is that it’s the society, not the solutions, that are the problem. The answer, then, is to push harder in the same direction. Thus, the Republican Party has lurched ever farther to the right over the past 50 years, regardless of the outcome of its policies.
The Southern takeover of American politics
Skidmore’s second important point (for this discussion) is different and, seemingly, unrelated. “Just as slavery was the major issue that cut through nearly all others from the founding until the Civil War, so too after the War has race continued to dominate.” (Bear with me—I’ll explain shortly how the two fit together.)
Skidmore usefully cites what the scholar George Lipsitz has called “the possessive investment in whiteness.” Lipsitz uses the adjective “possessive to stress the relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation,” Skidmore writes. He stresses research that shows that “nearly every social choice that white people make about where they live, what schools their children attend, what careers they pursue, and what policies they endorse is shaped by considerations involving race.” These choices take place at the micro level too, of course: what side of the street to walk on, what stores to go into, who to approach on the street to ask directions.
This preoccupation runs like a vein through the entire history of white America. It’s survived the end of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and the cultural changes that succeeded it. Arguably, the most profound cultural impact of the Reagan years was to persuade white Americans that the era of black civil rights—of the necessity to do something to alleviate the impact of centuries of oppression on people of color in the U.S.—was over and that they no longer had to think about it. They then spent the next 30 years, roughly until the events that galvanized the BlackLivesMatter movement, pretending to themselves that this was the case.
In reality, life in America was and is as racialized as it’s ever been; under Trump, the underlying attitudes behind this are being expressed more explicitly than in decades.
With his dog-whistle appeals to an increasingly violent online racist community and socially reactionary rhetoric, Trump represents the culmination of a process that began when the Republican Party launched its “Southern Strategy” 50 years ago to capture the white vote in the region. Ultimately, the GOP didn’t take over the former Southern Democrats; they took over the GOP. Beginning with Lee Atwater’s central role in the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988, through the southern politicians who led the 1992 “Republican Revolution” in Congress (Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay) and on to the southern leadership of today’s congressional Republicans (Mitch McConnell, Roy Blunt, John Cornyn), the South has come to dominate the GOP, and elected lawmakers in other regions increasingly conform to their model.
As Skidmore points out, this marks a significant departure in American politics. Previously, the primary goal of both of the U.S.’s two quasi-institutionalized parties was to win elections, and both had “liberal” and “conservative” wings. This is still true of the Democratic Party, which has progressive and center-right factions, but since the southern takeover of the Republican Party, the GOP has been weaponized as the vehicle for a remarkably effective social and economic kulturkampf against what the southern power structure has always seen as its enemies, and a drive to impose its “values” on the rest of the country as well.
Not since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 has the South played such a dominating role in American politics.
OK, here’s where Skidmore’s first and second points come together. I’ve argued previously on this blog that collective social provision in the U.S. (not to mention elsewhere) can’t survive and advance to its next level of evolution unless the problem of racial inequality is fully addressed. And it’s been argued extensively that much of the New Deal, including Social Security, left out most African Americans (a good discussion is here). But the “arc of history,” in this case, is that from roughly the end of the Second World War through the early 1970s, New Deal and Great Society social programs, including Social Security, were gradually widened to embrace low-income communities and people of color. This period coincided with the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement.
Then a pivot point was reached. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a backlash against civil rights and federal anti-poverty programs began, with the latter increasingly seen by whites as programs for “those people.” At about the same time, the steady expansion and modernization of social insurance programs in the U.S. stalled, and their supporters were forced into a defensive posture that’s continued until quite recently. In the last 40 years, we’ve seen the value of Social Security benefits decline, Medicare premiums creep upward, DI requirements stiffen, and the unemployment insurance system atrophy.
This owes a lot to the power of fiscal hawks in both parties, who have ably pushed back at efforts to return the federal government to a more activist social policy and expand social insurance on the grounds that this would be too expensive. But roughly the same era, Skidmore points out, saw the spread of Public Choice Theory, which encouraged policy-makers to regard individuals strictly as self-interested actors and that all walks of life should therefore operate as much as possible like a marketplace. Conservative economist James M. Buchanan, one of the creators of the public choice school received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986: snugly in the middle of the second Reagan administration.
Skidmore leans on Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean’s groundbreaking account of public choice and Buchanan’s dubious early career, which argues that his intellectual edifice was at least in part a backlash against civil rights. But Buchanan also, in 1968, issued a proposal for scrapping the payroll tax and the Social Security system altogether and replacing them with required savings in the form of “social insurance bonds” tied to Treasury rates or GDP.
The point is not that opposition to social insurance is racist, or that to be a fiscal hawk is to be racist, but that these two phenomena coincide in time and place. The one abets the other, because racism and opposition to social insurance both stem from an impulse, encouraged by the particularist politics of the Republican Party and its dominant Southern wing, to deny any social connection with any group other than the one each individual defines for themselves.
A tug-of-war is taking place within the congressional Democratic Party between proponents of returning to a policy of expanding both Social Security and Medicare, and those who want to stick as much as possible to the status quo. At the same time, a passel of younger lawmakers are pushing for a more forthright approach to calling out and pushing back against racism. If the party doesn’t embrace these two intersecting goals, it will have failed to provide any countervailing force either to conservative policies or the dynamic that perpetuates them—and the long war against social insurance will continue.