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Leaning into Failure: Race, Public Welfare, and Modern Conservatism

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. Continue reading Leaning into Failure: Race, Public Welfare, and Modern Conservatism