Opposing big government: What’s that really about?

Darian Warren  at Colorlines has an interesting answer to the question,  What is behind the loathing of big government that the Tea Party has brought to the center of US politics?  You can get to his answer by asking yourself where the claims about states’ rights start to become very vocal. 

 Of course, that’s when southern states opposed government regulations that would deprive them of slave labor.  Keeping government small,  Warren claims, is about maintaining the exploitation of black labor and opposing any social amelioration of the resulting injustices.

I think it’s very tempting to respond by pointing out that an anti-big-government sentitment starts with the founding of the country; it begins as a resistance to the idea of having a king, and not as a plan to preserve slavery.  But this response probably misunderstands the issues raised, which are about the present sentiment.  If the Tea Party is really just against a large government, where were they during the presidency of GW Bush? 

Thinking about the possibly more subtle racism behind the Tea Party also offers a perspective on the mixed blessing of Obama’s speech today on the budget.  Against most economists, he has agreed that the deficit is a really, really bad thing.  But at least he did also say (from the NY Times):

“There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” Mr. Obama said of budget proposals put forward by Republicans in the House. “There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.”

I’m not sure what we should finally think about  Warren’s  idea, but it does offer a solution to a puzzle.  Why does the white fear that is so obviously fueling the Tea Party end up with bad economic ideas about cutting spending when the economy is still so fragile?  The answer is that it isn’t directly about economics.

And then there’s Mitch McConnell of Kentuky, Senate minority leader:

… too often, it seems, Democrats in Washington claim to be interested in helping those in need, when what they really seek is to protect big government.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Opposing big government: What’s that really about?

  1. I don’t think it helps to see this as racially motivated–though there’s certainly some racism involved. It’s a consequence of plain empirical mistakes. First, Americans grossly overestimate the percentage of GDP spent on both foreign aid and domestic social safety nets. Secondly, they believe that their tax rate is higher than it’s ever been and that their current economic woes are a consequence of being taxed to death. Thirdly, many are convinced that private industry, block associations, families, churches and friendly groups of neighbors can take over most of the functions of government and do everything government does cheaper and better. Fourthly, working class Americans–with perhaps between $35,000 and $70,000 household income are convinced that raising taxes for those making over $250,000 is just the thin end of the wedge and that if they allow this then their taxes will be raised to the point where they’re impoverished in order to pay for the lavish pay, benefits and pensions of public employees and welfare queens.

    Again (I said this before) I don’t think it’s ill will. It’s plain empirical mistakes. So I think the fix is to set folks right about these mistakes.

  2. HEB, I didn’t want to say anything about ill-will; presumably a lot of racism these days operates at an unconscious level and I’m not sure “ill-will” applies in the case of, e.g., implicit biases.

    Nonetheless, I’m not at all sure about the beliefs you are talking about being anything like simple empirical mistakes. These are systematically held and systematically distorting beliefs and as such I’m inclined to think they need an explanation..

    We’ve had decades of demonizing “welfare queens,” with the story uncritically accepted. White people who think of Churches helping out may well not even be thinking of people of color, or at least African Americans. I doubt they think that their own churches should run special programs for African American inner city youths, for example.

    Apparently another “mistaken belief” many white middle class people have is that it is much easier for a black youth to get a college education than it is for a white one. I think we need to ask what makes all these mistakes so easy for some people to accept and so hard to give up in the face of counter-evidence. One bet is that they fit into a world view of where threats come from, who actually counts and is worthy of help, etc, etc.
    In addition, they are often promolgated by people who surely know they are wrong. I remember hearing Rush L going on about how the Obamas both got into great universities only because of affirmative action and so took educational opportunities from more worthy whites.

  3. I can see more clearly now: the Southern strategy launched by Nixon and perfected by Reagan had virtually nothing to do with racial “ill will.” Reagan’s invocation of “welfare queens” should be interpreted mainly as a matter of class, not race. Indeed, the so-called racial history and present of the U.S.–including that of the Republican Party since the civil rights movement–largely rests on “plain empirical mistakes.” The (white) working class and (white) Southerners generally have a hard time, for whatever reasons, recognizing and correcting these mistakes.

    I’ll have to remember to make H.E. Baber’s distinction between attitudes and policies that are “racially motivated” as compared to those that merely involve “some racism.” Problem is, I’m not really sure how to understand such a distinction.

  4. I’m not denying that racism plays a part–though attitudes about race have changed considerably since Reagan made his remarks about welfare queens.

    However I think this opposition to ‘big government’ cuts deeper than racial issues. They’re an outgrowth of deeply rooted romanticism that drives both the Right and the Left: distrust of institutions, distrust of Big as such and the unshakable conviction that everything can be done by voluntary people-to-people efforts.

    Real case. Most of daughter’s friends are either militant atheists or fundamentalists. One of the latter hasn’t got medical or dental insurance, and hasn’t got a job. But no worry she says: if her teeth start hurting too much there’s a dentist at her megachurch who will fix them for free. And please note: detestable as they are in every other way, megachurches are racially integrated.

    This is the picture: everything can (and should) be handled through voluntarism–and the benevolent paternalism of employers. So, when New Orleans went under Walmart distributed food baskets to employees who’d been flooded out, and promised them equally shitty jobs at Walmarts in other areas if they decided to move away. People thought this was wonderful: Walmart cared.

    The creepiest, scariest thing to me is this picture–which I think is what conservative Americans want. Government restricted to policing functions: military, cops and prisons. Education? Homeschool your kids or send them to private, fee-paying schools which provide an education unhampered by teachers’ unions. Healthcare? Doctors and dentists at your church will take care of you if you can’t pay your own way. Everything else? Your employer will take care of it: you get whatever else you need at the company store. And if you’re not employed–well, you can beg. Good-hearted Christians will help you out if (and only if) you’re one of the deserving poor.

  5. HEB: I think these are complicated examples, but let me pick a few. In my city, which is supposed to be one of the best for African Americans to live, the mega churches are integrated, but they are for people like us – not university profs, but respectable and deserving people. It is hard to believe that anyone thinks that they take care of the inner city youth, but then the inner city youth don’t really count. And that looks racist. And the trouble seen with the democrats is that they want to spend our money on the people who aren’t like us. And that looks racist. The crime in the city is high enough that everyone knows there’s a large group not taken care of by us, but this group are not us.

    Even in southern California, surely they are aware that there are a whole lot of ‘useless’ people not taken care of. I’d be so surprised if they weren’t aware that the dems are proposing to take care of these partial persons, and unhappy about that.

    My city is also relatively near New Orleans and I don’t think anyone thought Walmart did much. What was a huge contribution was the mayor of Houston deciding the city would take in the people held in that huge nightmare arena in New Orleans. They were put in the Astrodome. A huge number of people volunteered, but the city government was completely necessary and this was extremely easy to see. The gov’t in Galveston also managed to get some large cruise ships to use for more NO refugees.

    The thing is, normally conservative white people do not want our money spent on those people.

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