Republicans Win Without a Shutdown
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Well, America dodged the first bullet. The big April 8 deadline for a shutdown of the federal government came and went, and the Democrats in the White House and the U.S. Senate were able to keep it from shutting down. But the price was $40 billion in budget cuts an economy still mired in a so-called “jobless recovery” can ill afford — cuts that will directly attack low-income people, including people with disabilities, and far from “unleashing the private sector” to make investments and hire people, will actually kill jobs.
Not that you’re going to read that perspective in the mainstream corporate media. You’ll be hearing a lot of cant about “bipartisanship” and how the Democrats have supposedly “grown up” and accepted the inevitability of an “age of austerity.” The commitments both major parties, especially the Democrats, made the American people between the 1930’s and the 1960’s — a “social safety net” that wouldn’t let people become poor just because they became old or disabled, that wouldn’t let people die of treatable diseases just because they were poor, that would acknowledge that we are all responsible for each other and that well-off people have not only a social but a moral obligation to help less well-off people — are all, like the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete” and “quaint” in today’s politics.
Instead the ruling ideology of both major parties — though the Republicans are pursuing it with the zeal of true believers while the Democrats reluctantly go along with the demands of the corporate paymasters who finance their campaigns — is that lassiez-faire capitalism is the only legitimate and moral economic system; that all government programs that transfer wealth and income from the rich to the not-so-rich are fundamentally immoral; that weaning people off “dependency” on so-called “entitlements” is a long-term process but one that must be started now; and that, despite the horrendous potential consequences of cutting government spending in the middle of a recession, which will not only throw public-sector workers out of work but also hurt the private businesses they buy goods and services from, leading them to lay off more of their workers, massive spending cuts are a done deal and the only legitimate political argument is over how massive.
The Republican propagandists who boast that their side won the ideological war — that they got President Obama and the Senate Democrats to abandon all hope of further economic stimulus and join them in slashing the federal budget — are absolutely right. In states where the Republicans hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature, we’ve seen them hack away at the working class by fiat — not only slashing salaries and benefits of government workers but denying them their right to fight back by organizing unions and bargaining collectively with their employers. (One of the piss-ant justifications the Republicans offer is that we as taxpayers pay the salaries of public employees but not those of private employees. Bullshit: every time we buy something in the private sector, it’s our money as consumers that’s going to pay the workers.)
And when the Democrats hold the governorship and legislative majorities, as in California, the Republicans still manage to get their way. Like their ideological brethren and sistren in Washington, D.C., the Republicans in the California legislature hamstrung Jerry Brown by pretending to negotiate in good faith over a voter initiative to keep the emergency sales taxes and vehicle fees that have kept the state budget on life-support for the last two years — and just when a deal appeared within reach the Republicans upped the ante and made sweeping demands on non-budget issues they could never have got approved through the normal legislative processes. In California, they derailed a budget deal by insisting on the end of virtually all environmental controls on development; in D.C. they nearly sabotaged the process by insisting on wiping out funds for Planned Parenthood and pushing new restrictions on abortions in the states.
The Republican Party has been steadily winning ideological battles ever since 1980, when Ronald Reagan squeaked into the presidency with slightly over 50 percent of the popular vote against two major opponents, Democrat Jimmy Carter and independent John Anderson. (It’s a measure of how successful the Republican propaganda machine has been at rewriting history that even a staunchly liberal pundit like Ronald Brownstein recently referred to Reagan’s 1980 victory as a “landslide.” It was not.) Ever since, ideas that were previously thought of as part of the Right-wing fringe have made it to the mainstream, from the near-total deregulation of the financial sector (which actually began in the 1970’s under Carter and a Democratic Congress) to the government actively busting labor unions. The carefully crafted compromises of the 1930’s — the ones that gave labor the right to organize and gave Americans a long-overdue promise of economic security when they retired, as well as massive public investments in the economy — that created America’s extraordinary prosperity in the 1950’s and 1960’s have been wantonly and recklessly dismantled in the name of “freedom.”
When George W. Bush was President, I was fond of quoting the words William Butler Yeats wrote when the original fascists were running Germany and Italy and Europe’s remaining democracies seemed helpless to challenge them: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, I hoped — not with the unalloyed fervor of some of his supporters, but I hoped nonetheless — that the grass-roots movement that elected him would help turn that around and there would be passionate intensity on our side, for a change. I was wrong; Obama turned out to be an inside wheeler-dealer who not only didn’t mobilize the troops that had elected him but actively discouraged them — and once again the Right took advantage of the Left’s pathetic fecklessness and organized as the Tea Party to “take back Washington” on behalf of the rich.
Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten published an article on April 9 that showed just how far we have fallen. Called “Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint would push the aged into poverty,” it was an attack on the recent budget proposal by Congressmember Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) that would essentially abolish Medicare, replacing the current publicly funded single-payer program that provides medical care to the aged with individual vouchers old people could use to buy private health insurance. Relying on an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Rutten said that under Ryan’s plan “the overall cost of health care would go up, and retirees’ out-of-pocket medical expenses would double — an increase that would push tens of millions of people living on fixed income over the financial brink.”
Rutten also quoted an exultant editorial in the Wall Street Journal that said Ryan’s gutting of Medicare would be “as important an advance as the shift from defined-benefit pensions to 401(k)’s.” He rightly pointed out that the Ryan plan was yet another in “the line of initiatives that, over the past 30 years, have dramatically increased social and economic inequality” — and, he might have added, have gradually increased social insecurity and devolved more and more responsibility away from government (and private employers) and onto individuals. By excluding people already on Medicare from his “reforms,” Ryan is hoping to blunt the opposition from current recipients that has sunk previous efforts to privatize Medicare and Social Security (and which Republicans, ironically, used themselves in their effort to defeat the Obama health-insurance reform bill last year) — just as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tried to forestall opposition to his public-sector union-busting by leaving out the two most popular sorts of public employees, police officers and firefighters (whose unions had endorsed him).
But Rutten’s article went farther: he took his readers back to the heady politics of the early 1960’s, the years of John Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, when the government took up the unfinished business of the New Deal and guaranteed not only financial security but health care to old people through Medicare — and also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made the systematic segregation and discrimination against African-Americans and other people of color illegal at last. He reminded us of a book whose cautionary tale has been virtually forgotten: The Other America, published in 1961 by economic and social activist and critic Michael Harrington. In his introduction, Harrington wrote that he intended the book to expose “the huge, enormous and intolerable fact of poverty in America,” to which, he said, “the truly human reaction can only be outrage.”
It’s a measure of how far we have fallen that the U.S. is now governed by people who not only feel no outrage towards poverty in America but regard the poor as responsible for their own plight. The book that inspires Paul Ryan isn’t The Other America but a novel published four years before it: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s view is that lassiez-faire capitalism is not only the only efficient economic system but also the only moral one. She regarded any taxation of the wealthy to create a social safety net to be theft and enslavement of the rich. In one of her writings, anticipating the obvious objection that the government or society as a whole owed an obligation to take care of sick people and people with disabilities, she said, “Misfortune does not justify slave labor.” The plot of Atlas Shrugged deals with the mysterious disappearance of the world’s capitalists, who have decided that they can no longer tolerate being expected to support the nonproductive masses and hide out to form their own free-market utopia, emerging only when their rebellion brings about the collapse of the collectivist state they hate.
Congressmember Paul Ryan is enough of an Ayn Rand devotée that he orders every staff person he hires to read her novel. Former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan almost literally sat at Rand’s feet while she was writing Atlas Shrugged. Her blueprint for a society ruled by a wealthy elite in which everyone else lives on the crumbs thrown to them by her free-market entrepreneurial heroes is clearly the lodestar of modern-day Republican politics. Rand’s vision is behind House Republican leader Eric Cantor’s recent — and almost totally unreported — statement that Social Security and Medicare “cannot exist if we want America to be what we want America to be.” Republicans’ current hard lines in budget negotiations in Washington and Sacramento, and their sweeping attacks on workers’ rights, the social safety net, women’s reproductive freedom, the environment, and so-called “illegal” immigration, are all part of a long-term ideological war which, despite occasional reversals, they have been winning for over 30 years.