Sunday, November 13, 2011

"People Like Us" and the Ohio referendum (Jonathan Chait)

Lots of Americans complain about "government spending" and "government programs", but which government programs do they actually dislike? Here's another shrewd observation from Jonathan Chait:
The conservative movement holds an ideological and generally principled opposition to government. [JW: I think "right-wing" is more accurate than "conservative" here, contrary to the peculiar & misleading terminology of American politics, but let's skip that for the moment.] Most Republican voters don’t share that. They oppose government programs that seem to benefit people other than themselves.

The most relevant piece of work here is a study by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam, which identified ethnocentrism, or a favoritism for people you identify with racially, culturally, or otherwise, as a driving force of American public opinion. Among whites, ethnocentrism makes you more opposed to welfare and food stamps. That’s conservative, and obviously not very surprising. The surprising thing is that ethnocentric whites are more supportive of Social Security and Medicare. Those are programs for people like themselves.

Republicans successfully mobilized public opposition to health care reform by portraying it as an attempt to take health care away from people like you and give it to the undeserving "them." Conservatives deliriously interpreted this as a triumph of anti-government ideology asserting itself. But as Republicans discovered when they voted for a budget to slash Medicare, the public remains staunchly opposed to cutting programs for people like themselves. [....]

Cops, firefighters, teachers, nurses — people like us. Conservatives have yet to grasp that their successful attempts to rally opposition to government programs seen as benefiting the Other do not translate into opposition to the vast bulk of the government.
This is not simply a matter of individual selfishness (or, to put it more technically, of the "rational" calculation of purely individual self-interest). As Chait's discussion makes clear, the most crucial questions have to do with solidarity and collective identity. Who are "we" (for what purposes), and how do we draw the lines between "us" and "them"? How widely and how strongly does solidarity reach? These questions are always of central importance in politics, and especially for the politics of democratic citizenship.

Senate Bill 5 in Ohio was an attack on public employees' unions, but obviously a large proportion of those who voted to repeal it weren't public employees themselves, or even close relatives of public employees. A pervasive feature of the Republicans' long-term war on unions has been an effort to drive a wedge between private-sector and public-sector workers, to the detriment of both. Too often, that works. This time it didn't.

Solidarity forever!
Jeff Weintraub

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