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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Racism of Hostility to "Big Government"

I wrote a couple days ago about the popular contest between the guiding ideas of a championing of Good Government as against a vilification of Big Government, being staged in the present as a contest of affection for FDR as against Ronald Reagan as Presidential exemplars. One of the problems with this formulation is that the phrases on which it depends are not equally dependable themselves.

Of course, the idea of championing Good Government is not -- as some facile reactionaries would have it -- anything like a blanket celebration of all government as good, so much as the conviction that government can serve the people well whatever its vulnerabilities to do otherwise and that we must all be dedicated as citizens, then, to ensuring that it does do good.

Now, the idea of vilifying Big Government is a far more confused affair. Given the tendency of so many ideologues most loudly opposed to Big Government to enlarge governmental budgets, debts, employees, legislation, and authority the moment they are in a position to do so it is easy to wonder whether they mean or even remember or understand what they say when they repudiate Big Government. Of course, many claim to oppose the very idea of Government as such (which Reagan himself described as "the problem"), in which case what is Bad about Big Government is just that it is more of what is bad in any case, but this surely exacerbates the initial perplexity of those of us who wonder whether those who speak this way truly mean or understand what they say. It seems curious on the face of it that a person who denounces the criminality and corruption and incompetence of the very idea of public service would then strive so diligently to assume the position of such criminality, corruption, and incompetence (although I suppose it does help us make sense of the fact that so many who achieve public office through recourse to such rhetoric go on to be criminal, corrupt, and incompetent). And given that all public figures in the United States declare themselves dedicated to our democracy it seems especially curious that some would denounce government in a system of government of by and for the people, since this would seem to imply that they denounce not only all of their constituents but themselves as well as members of that people.

But it seems to me that the substantial reality underlying the rhetoric of the vilification of Big Government is really rather more straightforward than all this. Not to put too fine a point on it, Big Government tends to be code for "welfare" and for those who respond to this code it typically seems to mean even more specifically any empowerment of non-whites (which of course makes no sense at all since more white people are beneficiaries of welfare than not, but racism is irrational by nature and it is foolish to expect sense from it). That is to say, when you hear the vilification of Big Government it is crucial to understand just how often this vilification amounts to hostility to any Government so Big as to be Big Enough to be of benefit to anybody but well-off straight (or closeted) white guys. No, I do not think this is a facile or sanctimonious oversimplification. The Southern Strategy is real, and its mobilization by Reagan and others throughout the Movement Republican epoch consummated in Bush II is perfectly well understood.

Slavery was an incomparable crime in the foundation of this nation, a crime exacerbated by the native American genocide through which the United States constituted itself as a continental power through internal imperialism, a crime reproduced in the aftermath of the Civil War through racist Reconstruction and an Apartheid South, a crime consolidated by the exclusion of migrant farmers and domestic workers (many of whom were people of color) from the New Deal that created a white American middle class and then the subsequent failure of the New Deal to achieve a National healthcare system and hence a viable social democracy in the twentieth century because racists were appalled at the prospect of caring equitably for African American citizens, a crime re-invigorated right up to the present day in the racist war on drugs.

It is important to rehearse all this, because it is important that we recall forcefully to mind the ugly substance behind what might otherwise seem the merely stupid and self-defeating hostility to "Big Government" that presumably drives Movement Republicanism. It is important to grasp that their embrace of big authoritarian government in practice does not give the lie to their vilifications of Big Government so much as remind us that these vilifications are often profoundly misleading, functioning as cover for what is more substantially their racist hostility to the notion of equitable treatment for the diversity of their fellow citizens of color. And, finally, all this is important, because unless we attend to all this we are apt to forget or misunderstand the extraordinary force and promise (far from a guarantee, but promise indeed) of the historical moment when the Southern Strategy fails and Barack Obama assumes the Presidency of the United States.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Carrico, perhaps you might be able to educate me on what you think are the differences between American paleoconservatism and neoconservatism (if there are any) because I always assumed probably incorrectly that paleoconservatives are conservatives who see "social engineering" through "Big Govenment" (welfare, affirmative action, etc) as a threat to their reactionary vision of what constitutes "social order" while neoconservatives are conservatives who see "social engineering" through "Big Government" (abstinence-only sex education, school prayer, etc) as tool to enfore their reactionary vision of what constitutes "social order". However, from what I've been reading in different sources lately, it seems that the only difference is on foreign policy to the extent that paleocons are "isolationists" while neocons are "interventionists".

Can you help with one of your always insightful clarifications?

Dale Carrico said...

I actually don't think the interesting relationship is the one between paleocons and neocons, which on foreign policy questions looks to me much as it does to you. The more indispensable relationship to grasp, it seems to me, is that neoconservatism is the militarist face of the neoliberal corporatist coin. While it is conventional to figure conservativism and liberalism (treated as roughly synonymous with reaction and progress, or with aristocracy and democracy) as legible and legitimate right and left poles of the political field, it is interesting to note the neoconservatism and neoliberalism are both on the right, and that their relation is not of distinction but dependency.