Gubmint for Me, but Not for Thee

Joan Walsh has a good article at Salon called “What’s the Matter With White People?” that documents the “tea partiers” don’t grasp that health care and other reforms are to help them. They only see that their taxes are going to be used to help other people.

This point is reinforced by a recent article by Ron Brownstein.

In a mid-March Gallup survey, 57 percent of white respondents said that the bill would make things better for the uninsured, and 52 percent said that it would improve conditions for low-income families. But only one-third of whites said that it would benefit the country overall — and just one-fifth said that it would help their own family.

Compounding the confusion is a recent article by Kate Zernike in the New York Times that found many of the “tea partiers” are unemployed or retired and receiving various kinds of government assistance, even as they demonstrate against government assistance.

Mr. Grimes, who receives Social Security, has filled the back seat of his Mercury Grand Marquis with the literature of the movement, including Glenn Beck’s “Arguing With Idiots” and Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law,” which denounces public benefits as “false philanthropy.”

“If you quit giving people that stuff, they would figure out how to do it on their own,” Mr. Grimes said.

Which is something of a departure from past populist movement sparked by hard economic times.

The Great Depression, too, mobilized many middle-class people who had fallen on hard times. Though, as Michael Kazin, the author of “The Populist Persuasion,” notes, they tended to push for more government involvement. The Tea Party vehemently wants less — though a number of its members acknowledge that they are relying on government programs for help.

They also say “the government” caused their own and the nation’s hardships, which I guess is true inasmuch as government stepped aside and allowed the financial sector to lead the nation off a cliff.

Anyway, I’ve argued in the past that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program caused a huge shift in attitude in white Americans about government. People who had been just fine with help from government programs initiated by FDR and Truman suddenly decided government shouldn’t be giving out “hand outs” when a large percentage of the recipients were African American. And, of course, Republicans (including Nixon and Reagan) hammered home the theme that “entitlements” were going to greedy (and nonwhite) people who wouldn’t work and who drove their new Cadillac to the grocery story and paid for their groceries with food stamps.

Being from the Ozarks myself, I could take you home with me and show you white families who have survived on government assistance for generations, but because such families tend to live outside the suburbs of the boonies they are mostly invisible to media. But I also know (I know my people; I’m related to most of ’em) that these same white folks, who rarely have regular jobs and who survive by the grace of food stamps (although I understand they use cards now) and Medicaid, will tell you they don’t think “those people” ought to be getting welfare.


Anyway, Joan Walsh mentions research that found working-class whites bailed out of the Democratic Party beginning in the mid-1970s. It actually began during the Nixon Administration, but possibly not yet in large numbers. But what shook so many working-class people loose was a combination of factors that began with Republicans like Nixon painting “welfare” as a process by which white taxpayers were handing out money to chronically unemployed (i.e., lazy) black people. The other part of that process, of course, was that the Democratic Party itself abandoned New Deal-style progressivism.

Of course, another part of the problem might be the way President Obama and other Democrats kept trying to assure people that, if you already have employee benefit health insurance, your insurance won’t change. This was to calm fears that everyone’s doctor was about to be hauled off to the gulag, where you couldn’t see him without a stamp from the Bureau of Health Care Rationing. But maybe the message that got through was “this legislation is just for unemployed people.”

Walsh concludes,

So there’s a long history here of Republicans preying on white working-class insecurity, and Democrats mostly ignoring it, that shapes the response to healthcare reform. That’s why, to me, it was so important for Democrats to pass the bill, flawed as it was. Democrats need to deliver on their promises, with tangible benefits for their voters, and if whites remain suspicious now, maybe watching the bill’s colorblind protections help all groups can change white opinions about social spending. Maybe not. But Democrats are going to have to do a better job of selling the bill’s benefits to everybody to prevail in November, and Brownstein’s column framed the problem without name-calling.

That’s about where I come out also.