No, got-dammit, this government shutdown is not like the one in 1995 because the middle-class is broker, and the got-damm Tea Party and so-called Libertarians now stigmatize the poor, and proclaim that if you are sick just die dammit, don’t bother me.
Well I’m old enough to remember December 1995 when the United States government shut down for 21 days. It was the end of a year marked by violent fringe politics, true enough. The Oklahoma City bombings, the Unabomber manifesto, and the televised train wreck of the OJ Simpson trial were still fresh in our collective memories. In 1995, Americans watched fist-fight talk shows like Jerry Springer, and government conspiracy dramas were the norm. The shutdown just seemed to be a slice of the times–idiocy ascended to a higher plane.
But the economy was strong despite the fact that Clinton was well on the way to major contributions to its demise—including NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall (The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act), and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000— possibly to distract us from his constant problems involving his proclivity for inappropriate sexual escapades. We rolled our eyes and waited it out. Because in 1995, we collectively decided that when the government shut down, odds seemed good it would come back in good shape.
Americans tend to remember the 1990s through the fog of American Attention Deficit Disorder — the peacetime complacency, the political correctness, the jobs — but they were gaudy, paranoid times. Today the 1990s feel like a dream only because the nightmare they created became ordinary. In the decade to come, the tabloid would become the “news”, the social fabric became sewn from the lunatic fringe. Radical polarization became to be expected. America and Americans went crazy and never came back to their senses.
But a crisis was always there – granted, it was repackaged, dressed up, dumbed down, but always there. Contradictory to the vitriolic partisanship of the 1990s was a uniform conformity to gut social services to the sick and the poor. The indigent were portrayed as a privileged class draining off state resources at their leisure because they were lazy—or worse, taking advantage of those who were “providing”.
This argument dates back to President Reagan’s denigration of so-called “welfare queens” – and the bedrock for it was laid well before that – but it was the 1990s when it found mainstream appeal. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act — a reform that limited welfare benefits — to the approval of most Democrats and Republicans.
But it is effortless to make public services seem optional when people feel like they have options. In the mid-1990s, when the economy was thriving and unemployment was falling, you could tell someone to “go get a job” and it was possible they might actually find one.
This advice did nothing to mend the structural inequalities that trigger the plight of the poor. But it was an argument that seemed less heartless, less obviously destructive, than it does today. Today the advice remains the same – but the options for ordinary Americans have dramatically changed.
Relinquishing the Imaginary Throne of the “Welfare Queen”
American ideology has long skewed between individualism and Calvinism. In either case, whatever happened to you was either theoretically under your control – the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” meme – or divinely decided for you. You either jumped, or you were simply meant to fall.
Claims you were pushed, or you were born so far down you could not climb up, were dismissed as excuses of the lazy. This is the way many saw their world before it collapsed.
By the end of the 1990s, the US unemployment rate had reached a 25-year low of 3.8 percent, and a mere 6.1 percent of Americans relied on food stamps. Today a record 15 out of every 100 Americans need food stamps, and 45 percent of all infants born in the United States are served by the Women, Infant and Children program (WIC), that provides formula and vouchers for healthy food.
To be eligible for WIC, one’s income must be below 185 percent of the US Poverty Income. A near majority of American households now meet this measure, despite the unemployment rate hovering at 7.3 percent.
The reason for this is that even if one can find a job, the jobs have stopped paying. Homeless people are working two jobs. Walmart and McDonalds employees frequently receive federal assistance. Military wives survive on food stamps, and their husbands survive on them when they come home. The number of Americans on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has risen 70 percent since 2008 and shows no sign of stopping.
The reign of the “welfare queen” is finally over, because her true identity has been revealed. We are all the welfare queen, and we are abdicating her imaginary throne. The stigma of public assistance is slowly subsiding – not through a surge of compassion, but through an increase in desperation.
The New America Dream
I suppose the “good” news is that Americans are not as divided as they seem. We agree on guns – 90% of Americans support expanded background checks on gun owners – and we largely agree on health care. Only one third of Americans support repealing, defunding, or delaying Obama’s health care law. These numbers decrease when the law is called by its name, the Affordable Health Care Act, instead of Obamacare. 72 percent of Americans agree that there should not be a government shutdown.
Unfortunately, our opinions no longer matter—in large part due to an Activist Supreme Court and rulings like Citizens’ United. We are passive subjects, held hostage to a vindictive minority that is totally divorced from the public will.
Political scientist Daniel Drezner has noted that the government shutdown has no precedent in American history. “The material interests on the GOP side appear to have zero influence over their party,” he writes, noting the failure of the long-standing American tradition of pluralism. “Now it’s the ideological interests that are ascendant — and this poses enormous challenges to the American body politic.”
Rule by ideology is far more dangerous now than it was in the 1990s, because this shutdown takes place in a time of extreme economic vulnerability. Like the current shutdown, the current unemployment crisis has no precedent. The great lesson of the past decade was that any employee can be arbitrarily deemed non-essential or unworthy of pay.
In an era when entry-level jobs become unpaid internships and full-time jobs turn into contingency labor, it is easy to imagine the cuts from the sequester becoming permanent. Shutdown furloughs may turn into layoffs, marking survival as the new American Dream,
The non-essential worker is the typical hire. Our worst case scenarios are now simply scenarios.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, what actually happened on the other side of the aisle over the next half century was the war on poverty turned into a war on the poor. This war was once disguised as “compassionate conservatism” and debated with words like “responsibility” and “opportunity”.
Compassionate conservatism assumed that we could take care of ourselves so we did not need to take care of each other. It was an attractive theory to some, simultaneously exalting the successes of America while relieving the individual of responsibility for those whom it failed. Many good people believed in it. So dd many not so good.
Today the attack on the poor is no longer shrouded in ideology – it is ideology itself. This ideology is not shared by most Americans, but by those seeking to transform the Republican Party into, as former GOP operative Mike Lofgren describes it, “an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”
These are the people who have decided that poor children should be denied food as a result of elected officials wanting poor people to have healthcare.
The government shutdown only formalizes the dysfunction that has been hurting ordinary Americans for decades. It is not a political shutdown; it’s a social breakdown. Fixing it requires a reassessment of value – and values.
When wealth is considered as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologues justify punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. We should stigmatize those who let people die, not those who struggle to survive.