A government shutdown, a social breakdown

The current impasse in Washington is symptomatic of the socio-economic degradation being experienced throughout the US.

Obama and Romney press on in swing states ahead of vote
Even though both the Clinton and Obama administrations have now experienced government shutdowns, the prevailing social and economic conditions differed significantly [Reuters]

In December 1995, the United States government shut down for 21 days, ending a year marked by violent fringe politics – the Oklahoma City bombings, the Unabomber manifesto – and the televised train wreck of the OJ Simpson trial. In 1995, Americans watched fist-fight talk shows and government conspiracy dramas and sitcoms about the pointlessness of living. The shutdown seemed of a piece with the era, idiocy ascended to a higher plane. 

We rolled our eyes and waited it out. Because in 1995, when the government shut down, odds seemed good it would come back.

Americans tend to remember the 1990s through a soft flannel gauze — the peacetime complacency, the political correctness, the jobs — but they were garish, 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 gospel, the social fabric sewn from the lunatic fringe. Radical polarisation became rote. America went crazy and never went back.

The political tabloidisation of the 1990s – a decade-long parade of sex scandals filling time between the Cold War and the War on Terror – seems like the indulgence of a nation which, in the absence of an obvious crisis, made themselves their own. 

But a crisis was always there – only it was to be repackaged, not solved. Belying the vitriolic partisanship of the 1990s was a uniform agreement to gut social services to the sick and the poor. The impoverished were portrayed as a privileged class siphoning state resources at their leisure. 

This argument dates back to President Reagan’s denouncement 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.

It is easy to make public services seem optional when people feel like they have options. In the mid-1990s, when the economy was flourishing 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 underlay the plight of the poor. But it was an argument that seemed less callous, less obviously destructive, than it does today.  Today the advice remains the same – but the options for ordinary Americans have dramatically changed.

Abdicating the imaginary throne of the “Welfare Queen”

American ideology has long tilted between individualism and Calvinism. What happened to you was either supposed to be in your control – the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach – or divinely arbitrated. You either jumped, or you were 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 criterion, despite the unemployment rate hovering at 7.3 percent. 

The reason for this is that 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. 

People are more likely to condemn people on government assistance when they do not know any of them personally. It is becoming less and less likely that this is the case.

The new America dream

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.

But our opinion does not matter. We are passive subjects, held hostage to a vindictive minority divorced from public will.

Political scientist Daniel Drezner has noted that the government shutdown has no real 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 than it was in the 1990s, because this shutdown takes place in 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 labour, it is easy to imagine the cuts from the sequester becoming permanent. Shutdown furloughs may turn into layoffs, as elected officials, now marketing survival as the new American Dream, will assure us we did fine without them. 

The non-essential worker is the archetypal hire. Our worst case scenarios are simply scenarios.

Socio-economic astigmatism 

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Over the next half century, 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 concept, simultaneously exalting the successes of America while relieving the individual of responsibility for those whom it failed. Many good people believed in it. 

Today the attack on the poor is no longer cloaked 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 formalises the dysfunction that has been hurting ordinary Americans for decades. It is not a political shutdown but a social breakdown. Fixing it requires a reassessment of value – and values. 

When wealth is passed off 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. Stigmatise those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

You can follow Sarah on twitter @sarahkendzior