State of Interdependence

Terrance Heath

Rick Santorum finally had his moment on the RNC convention stage, all b. The man who barely endorsed Mitt Romney barely mentioned the Republican nominee in his keynote address. (Indeed, of the three prime time speakers Tuesday night — Santorum, Chris Christie, and Ann Romney the only one to give more than a passing mention to Mitt Romney was his wife.) Yet, Rick Santorum still hit all the right notes for the RNC convention audience; doubling down on the Romney campaign’s welfare reform lie, and linked it to the president’ alleged “refusal to enforce the immigration law.” 

But, as Joan Walsh pointed out, the man who introduced America “blah people” probably said more than he intended when he basically said to the sea of white faces in the convention hall, “you’re all ‘blah people.’”

Chris Christie got tapped to make the keynote attack on President Obama, but Rick Santorum was assigned to throw out some of the reddest meat at the GOP convention: about the way Obama supposedly gutted the work requirement for welfare (he didn’t).

And in case anyone was in danger of missing the racial subtext, Santorum linked Obama’s waiving the work requirement (he didn’t) to “his refusal to enforce the immigration law.” Welfare recipients and illegal immigrants, oh my! Santorum made sure to scare the white working class with the depredation of those non-white slackers and moochers. It’s 1972 all over again.

But Santorum moved beyond “blah” people to claim that all of America is caught up in “a nightmare of dependency, with almost half of Americans receiving government assistance.” To get to half, Santorum had to be including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, programs that are overwhelmingly going to white people.

But, as I wrote yesterday, the success of the Republican message depends at least in part upon distraction, to ensure that the base doesn’t look too closely at how conservative economic policies helped create the very economic anxiety that Republicans have been successfully exploiting for decades.

The GOP counts on their base not knowing what progressives have know for years: “red states” are the biggest welfare queens. For all the bluster about “dependency,” the most conservatives states are the states where government benefits account for the largest share of personal income, and the states that get more in government benefits than they give in tax dollars

Sure, the reddest states on the map are also the states where people are most likely to go hungry. But they’re also the states where people are most likely to support the Romney/Ryan plan to cut food stamp benefits. So, after the standard “look at those lazy/criminal, black/brown people” feint from the GOP playbook, Santorum stood in front of a convention hall full of anti-welfare welfare recipients cast the election in stark black and white terms, as a chance to “vote for life and liberty, not dependency” — to resounding applause. 

Thus, also, Paul Ryan could stand before the same crowd, and receive wave upon wave of adoration while also casting the election as an apocalyptic confrontation between the forces of freedom and dependency, in which the role of Cold War Communism is played by programs like Social Security, Medicare and (of course) health care reform.

But floating above all that is a larger theme, that I also think is wrong, but in a more interesting way than blaming Obama for the closure of a General Motors plant that actually closed when George W Bush was in office. This is Paul Ryan vision of the big choice in the election. Now don’t get me wrong. The choice is a big one, as are most all presidential elections. Politics is important stuff and the stakes are pretty high. Still, post-1970 American politics basically always gives you the same choice. In Column A the market liberalism of the Republican Party and in Column B the social liberalism of the Democratic Party. But Ryan sees instead an apocalyptic clash between freedom and tyranny:

None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers — a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

Maybe facing the possibility of living in poverty does add a much needed dash of adventure to one’s old age. Maybe programs like Social Security and Medicare are depriving people — old and young — of that adventure. Maybe worrying about where your next meal is coming from, or how you’ll get medical care makes life less dull. Maybe programs like food stamps and Medicaid sap life of its suspense and mystery. Maybe getting medical care in a livestock stall is more interesting than getting it in a community clinic or doctor’s office. Maybe health care reform is making life a little less interesting less interesting. 

 Or maybe, as Matt Yglesias suggests (and I agree), it’s not quite that serious.

When the people of West Berlin were faced on a daily basis with East German tyranny just a few neighborhoods away, they turned at times to center-right Christian Democrats and at times to center-left politicians like the SPD’s Willy Brandt. The people who brought you Medicaid, food stamps, Title I education assistance, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the federal student loan program were all on the anti-Communist side of the Cold War. Keynesian fiscal policy is an alternative to the view the capitalism is inherently crisis prone and unworkable.

 If anything the safety-net programs Ryan, Romney and the Republican party are wont to portray as beachheads for a brand of communism that hasn’t existed in any form large enough to threaten the “American way of life” in decades, are all that stands between the one percent and and real trouble.

Put sentiment aside. There are good reasons why plutocrats should care about inequality anyway—even if they’re thinking only about themselves. The rich do not exist in a vacuum. They need a functioning society around them to sustain their position. Widely unequal societies do not function efficiently and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable. The evidence from history and from around the modern world is unequivocal: there comes a point when inequality spirals into economic dysfunction for the whole society, and when it does, even the rich pay a steep price.

The rich do not exist in a vacuum, and neither do the rest of us. That’s why we created programs that ameliorate socio-economic inequities in ways that the free market and charity just aren’t designed to do — because there’s a collective benefit inherent in making sure that people can have decent lives, and have their basic needs met. 

This is where the Buddhist in me starts to think that all this carrying on about “dependency” vs. independence/freedom (the two are used interchangeably in conservative rhetoric) misses the point about the social contract, which Robert O. Self related in a column I cited in a previous post. 

Conventional wisdom has it that in politics there are values issues and economic issues, with “values” conservatives and “fiscal” conservatives to match. Yet this distinction obscures as much as it reveals. When we cast culture-war issues solely in terms of religious or moral values, we miss their deep entanglement with government power.

How people conceive of these issues — reproductive rights, say, or rape, or sexual harassment — says a great deal about how they view the social contract. The social contract is supposed to bind us together. It’s everything from Medicare to the Americans With Disabilities Act to Social Security to the Equal Pay Act. It is the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans share in a decent life. The social contract says that though our individual fates differ, we have a collective destiny, too. Many of us respond viscerally to comments from politicians like Mr. Akin because he leaves us wondering what place for women Republicans see in that collective future.

 What place is there for any of us, indeed? 

What these programs and the social contract represent is space between the extremes of “dependence” and “independence” — interdependence. It’s the simple reality that we are mutually dependent upon and rely on each other for survival, and that what happens to one of us in some way eventually impacts all of us. Thus we have a mutual interest in one another’s well-being. 

It’s an idea central to Buddhism that none of us exists as an island, detached from all others, uninvolved in and unaffected by the fates of others. 

It’s also a deeply-rooted American value. It is manifested in the traditions of our past, like barn raising. It can be seen in contemporary movements, like Occupy Our Homes. It has taken to the streets in Madison, WI. 

Through our history, Americans great and unknown have understood and given voice to this under-appreciated American value. Perhaps none more often and more eloquently than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who expanded on the subject in his 1967 Christmas Sermon on Peace.

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality . . . Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality. “

Elizabeth Warren probably put it best, most recently.

In a video of a recent Warren appearance, posted online by an individual who says he or she is not affiliated with the campaign, Warren answered the charge. “I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever,’” Warren said. “No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.

“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

It’s even echoed in the preamble of our constitution.

We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

 The choice we have to make isn’t between “dependency” and independence. It’s between valuing our interdependence, or tearing up the social contract, and pretending that we can truly afford to abandon one another. 

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