GOP Race-Baiting Masks Class Warfare
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This story originally appeared at Salon.
It’s commonplace to note that Newt Gingrich’s dog-whistle appellation that Barack Obama is the “food stamp president” is both racist and politically cynical. But the stereotyping of black government dependency also serves the strategic end of discrediting the entire social safety net, which most Americans of all races depend on. Black people are subtly demonized, but whites and blacks alike will suffer.
Gingrich persists because it’s a dependable applause line, and because his political fortunes keep rising. Compare that to September, when Mitt Romney attacked then-candidate Rick Perry for calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” Perry backtracked, insisting that he only wanted to bolster the program and ensure its solvency. But in his 2010 book “Fed Up,” Perry made his opposition to Social Security clear, calling it “a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal.” Scrapping entitlements is a core tenet of contemporary fiscal conservatism, but most of the time politicians only get away with attacking the most vulnerable ones: Medicaid, food stamps and welfare cash assistance, which are means-tested and thus associated with the black (read: undeserving) poor, although whites make up a far greater share of food stamp recipients. Government welfare programs with Teflon political defenses — Medicare and Social Security — are nearly universal entitlements and thus associated with “regular” (read: white) Americans.
“Ending welfare as we know it,” as Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans did in 1996, is one thing. “Ending Medicare,” Republicans were last year reminded, is something else altogether. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” declared a 2009 Tea Party town hall attendee who today might very well be an ardent supporter of Gingrich’s assault on food stamps. It is a political lesson that free-market fundamentalists have to relearn with some frequency. It was only 2005, after all, when President George W. Bush launched his ill-fated proposal to privatize Social Security — a setback he later called his greatest failure.
Yet as more government programs of any sort are framed as pernicious, laissez-faire ideologues are again emboldened to get rid of everything.
As recently as November 2009, the New York Times reported that stigma around food stamps had faded; the program received strong bipartisan support as millions of newly impoverished Americans reached out for food assistance. But temporarily cautious politicians had only stashed the old playbook on the top shelf, and the revival of welfare queen demagoguery made for quick political results. Nationwide, state legislatures are moving to impose drug testing of welfare, and even unemployment insurance, recipients.
“If you go apply for a job today, you are generally going to be drug-tested,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in October 2010. “The people that are working are paying the taxes for people on welfare. Shouldn’t the welfare people be held to the same standard?”
And and then came the push for cuts. Few noticed in April 2011 when House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposed cutting $127 billion from the food stamp program. The same went for the proposed dismantling of Medicaid, the healthcare entitlement for the nation’s poorest, which would be transformed into a block grant to the states with no coverage requirements. Everyone was focused on Ryan’s audacious proposal to privatize Medicare, and conservative pundits were eager to sink the popular entitlement under the banner of pragmatic fiscal seriousness. “The Ryan budget,” David Brooks wrote at the time, “will put all future arguments in the proper context: The current welfare state is simply unsustainable and anybody who is serious, on left or right, has to have a new vision of the social contract.”