Setting the terms of engagement


Before holding forth on this topic, I should identify myself. As an old-fashioned (and I mean old!) liberal/progressive, my views and general approach on socio-economic/political issues may not be quite as “advanced’ as many of the participants in this forum. Put another way, I may seem like an out-of-date, not to say out-of- touch, compromiser! That said, I am calling everyone’s attention to a longish editorial opinion piece in the Sunday (Nov. 22) New York Times Sunday Review section of Nov. 22: one titled “Who Turned My Blue State Red?”. The writer is an Alex MacGillis, by-lined as a political reporter for Pro-Publico. He writes about the phenomenon now fairly apparent in this country: Increasingly, districts and whole states with populations that are heavily dependent on various government programs (from housing subsidies and food stamps and disability payments to Medicare and Social Security) – in general, favored by Democrats – are electing politicians who do not particularly support them – in general, Republicans. Indeed, he describes some regions and states that are among the greatest beneficiaries of these government programs as now electing Republicans who explicitly campaign AGAINST these very programs. How and why this comes about is what he undertakes to explain: briefly he argues that it is the white population, especially older whites in these regions who may themselves be relying on at least some of these programs. However, they regard themselves as having earned/paid for these benefits and see poorer folks, especially people of color or newer ethnic groups, as freeloaders. And because this latter, relatively large segment of the region’s population does not vote in proportion to their numbers, whites, especially older whites, get to elect Republicans. Although he does not state this, it seems to be implied that this group assume that Republican politicians will in fact retain all programs that benefit themselves [E.g. Social Security, Medicare] but cut back on anything that rewards those “freeloaders” [E.g. food stamps, disability payments]. If nothing else, these people are giving expression to a generalized, “floating” resentment that Republican politicians seem responsive to. That is what lies behind this apparent paradox.

Aside from wishing to call your attention to this thoughtful piece – even if you do not necessarily agree with all of his points – I would like to make my own point. And it is that I feel that Democrat politicians – up to and including Hillary Clinton – and all of us “liberals” should face up to this development in our nation. We should not leave it to Republicans to campaign in this negative way, to make promises about what they will do or not do about these issues when elected. But I would go further – and this is where I may lose some of you – I think that the Democrats, and we liberals/progressives, should admit that there is waste and fraud in these programs and, if elected, they will set about to try to eliminate this.

For starters, there is undoubtedly a top-heavy bureaucracy administering most government programs. There is redundancy, there is inefficiency, incompetency. Every program should have some sort of Ombudsman whose sole duty is to seek out waste and fraud. No need to hire new personnel – rather reassign existent staff to this. It is well known that there are individuals receiving disability payments who are not really deserving. I would be for tracking them down. Thus the Social Security Administration will assign staff and procedures to more closely examine all disability claims. People abuse the food stamps they otherwise deserve. Medicaid and Medicare are rife with fraud, much of which is committed by pharmaceutical companies and upper-income medical practitioners – this is not a campaign just against lower income individuals.

Let me be clear. I accept that the total sums lost in all such instances – that is, involving individuals committing what I’ll lump together as “fraud’ for the moment – would add up to probably far less than what corporations get away with by avoiding taxes. Or what defense contractors get away with by manipulating contracts, not to mention corporations’ own varieties of fraud. And all that, it goes without saying here, should be a major priority of Democrats and progressives. But here’s my point: This other issue should be taken away from the Republicans. We do not need to elect even a “democratic socialist,” let alone some radical third-party candidate to deal with this issue. I know this is perhaps not much more than a cosmetic clean up of our social/economic/political system. But for better or worse we have this two-party system, and I wish the Democrats would take up this particular crusade. Bernie Sanders raving about greed in banking, Hillary carrying on about Wall Street, East Coast liberals questioning hedge funds (“the carried interest loophole”?!): none of this means much to the inhabitants of West Virginia and Kentucky who are voting in Republicans because they see some in their own communities unfairly getting disability checks while still active. Or getting food stamps and yet attending fancy restaurants or expensive sporting events. The Democrats should make it a “populist” issue and provide a reasoned promise to deal with this problem. They might even restore some of those Red states to the Blue column.


Editor’s note:
Related to the NYT’s piece mentioned in this post: The Powder KegThe seething racial resentment of the Obama era is of an altogether different kin, Esquire, 24 November 2015 by Charles Pierce

About the author

John Bowman

John S. Bowman is a retired freelance writer and editor living in Northampton MA.  He regards himself to be a progressive  liberal and as such feels free to make reasoned critiques of any positions in our country’s ongoing  debates. View all posts by John Bowman →

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