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Privatism and its Discontents



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I have been thinking and writing a good deal on the importance of empathy to democratic politics and to the preservation of freedom amongst heterogeneity in such societies. Our work here in the Institute takes me naturally to the topic as we study community change and democratization processes and work often with vulnerable populations, many of which are frequently the target of public discrimination and opprobrium (the poor, the drug addicted, the disabled or the incarcerated). Theoretically, as I have argued elsewhere, few concerns, human capacities or virtues are more central to the creation and maintenance of democratic institutions than empathy. So it is then, that I have become both interested in the topic and concerned about the state of what might be dubbed the collective willingness of our nation’s citizens to imagine themselves a part of a community, especially one that includes individuals unlike themselves.

Most recently, I have become concerned about the turn in U.S. and several western European nations’ politics that has found a share of leaders blaming with derision, if not outright loathing, specific subpopulations for difficult conditions in their countries in order to garner votes from groups supposedly wronged by these individuals. Some of these political parties and movements have taken vile hate-filled turns, as in France in the guise of the National Front party and in Italy via its Forza Nuova party. Others, as in the Republican legislative majorities in Arizona and Alabama and several other states, while less obviously targeting certain groups for outright racist or jingoistic venom as their European counterparts have done, have nonetheless launched attacks on immigrants, the poor, ethnic voters and seniors. As part of the national Republican Party’s overall program, its U.S. leaders, including the chair of the House Budget committee, Rep. Paul Ryan, have demanded deep reductions in funding for the nation’s anti-poverty programs and have called for changes in the poor’s purportedly insufficient “culture” to address poverty in the United States. Conservative media figures meanwhile, including Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter particularly, have issued attacks on poor women as being somehow alone responsible for the conditions in which they find themselves.

This is all occurring as Europe and this nation are experiencing historically slow economic growth post-recession, and with the United States exhibiting a poverty rate of 15 percent overall and 22 percent for its children. The U.S. is also presently not providing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits to 74 percent of its poor families with children, despite the fact the program nominally exists to do just that. Meanwhile wealth and income inequality have reached record highs in the United States, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued a staff report in February ( arguing that economic growth alone, especially at today’s slow rates in the United States and many other nations, will not address these issues, and doing nothing to deal with deepening poverty and inequality will, in fact, likely make matters worse. As the IMF paper’s authors concluded, “First, inequality continues to be a robust and powerful determinant both of the pace of medium-term growth and of the duration of growth spells, even controlling for the size of redistributive transfers. … It would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, not only because inequality may be ethically undesirable but also because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable” (p.25).

Amidst this gloomy economic and social scenario, GOP leaders have led efforts to block the use of government to ameliorate these conditions. In the last two years, that party has successfully thwarted the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, worked assiduously to prevent the provision of Medicaid to additional eligible individuals under the nation’s new health care law in nearly all states in which it holds a majority, sought to reduce federal expenditures in programs that assist the poor, including securing recent significant reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s principal initiative aimed at hunger and food insecurity. More generally, the Party fought efforts to create a federal stimulus package to address the recent recession and blocked continuation of any such effort once it had run its initial course, despite the persisting relative weakness of the overall economy. The GOP has also imposed harsh anti-immigration laws in several states and stymied immigration reform in Congress. A consensus of America’s economists has suggested these steps have worsened economic conditions materially for all Americans and especially for those already suffering from unemployment or poverty by the equivalent of 1-1 1/2 percentage points of growth.

Interestingly, many of the arguments the Republican Party has advanced in support of these policy positions have not rested on specific economic or empirical evidence concerning programmatic claims, but instead on abstract arguments or ideological assumptions, such as the claims that providing health care access to the poor would deprive them of their freedom to choose policies of their liking (without noting they do not have insurance now), that the poor misuse their food support benefits because of a culture of lassitude, that the long-term unemployed are not really looking for work because their benefits are keeping them too comfortable, that voter fraud requires strong identification measures at polling places and that immigrants are “stealing” other Americans’ jobs.

In all of these cases the Republican policy argument has rested on broad negative contentions regarding what someone is doing “to” citizens: “taking” their jobs, “taking advantage” of their kind support (the poor and unemployed), “taking unfair (and illegal) advantage” at the polls and so on. The GOP has also justified on similar grounds its wider critique of the federal government and of governance. The Republican Party has argued for decades that the nation should not provide Social Security or Medicare on the nonconcrete assertion that these programs impose unneeded restrictions on personal choice or interfere unduly with the market or both. In this argument, the “other” is the government and governance itself, which is typically criticized in favor of a theorized perfect market alternative. In short, the GOP has for many years set up dichotomies concerning policies it dislikes and attacked their beneficiaries or the government that provides them as somehow alien or apart from “us,” labeling them “others” who take unfair advantage of our support through alleged waste, fraud or abuse. That is, Republican government officials have “othered” the government they serve in order to undermine support for programs and policies of which they do not approve.

All of this has consequences for the citizens who listen to this rhetoric, a share of whom have come to believe that the government over which they are sovereign is not their own or is “taking” their resources to serve those among them who are contemptible and should be distrusted, whether specific groups or the government itself. That is, these arguments conduce to social distrust and to a slow enervation of empathy among the populace. With that process comes a weakening of support for and understanding of the need to maintain the common or broader community via governance processes in order to secure freedom itself. As marketization of society and of much of the state continues unrelentingly, citizens are offered the option of retreat into privatism even as they are encouraged not to empathize with a large swathe of their fellow Americans or to support democratic decision processes. This seems to be a neat description of what is happening among many in the United States today as their distrust of their own governments and their scapegoating of specific subgroups of the population continues to rise.

Whether one blames the nation’s present pass on widespread fear of a continuation of worsening economic conditions among the working and middle classes, policies that have exacerbated that situation or the fact that our political parties today are quite sophisticated in their appeals to humankind’s innate emotions and willingness to “other” to make sense of otherwise opaque situations to garner votes, the result, here and abroad, has been the same: the slow collapse of empathy in the polity, encouraged by a share of its own elected leaders. There are few long-term trends more significant for the health of freedom in our polity and that of other democratic nations, and therefore of more moment for our work here in the Institute, than this one. We are witnessing the unfolding of a political paradox for the ages: the possibility of freedom slowly despoiled by the dedication of a share of democracy’s own leaders to a flawed ideology tied to an effective machinery of electoral mobilization.


Special Note: This essay is the 24th Tidings, meaning the column has been published for six years. Special thanks to all who have read these reflections, commented on them and have otherwise encouraged me to write them. I have learned more than I can say from this privilege. MOS

Publication Date

March 31, 2014