Punitive politics: Blame the Puritans

By Neal Gabler
December 24, 2013

‘Tis the season of giving, charity and good will — unless you happen to be a Republican, and then ‘tis the season of pusillanimity, churlishness and bad will.

Congressional Republicans seem hell-bent on denying the most disadvantaged among us healthcare, unemployment benefits and, perhaps worst of all, food stamps, from which the House of Representatives slashed $40 billion last month. Elizabeth Drew, writing in Rolling Stone, calls it “The Republicans’ War on the Poor.”

You can attribute these benefit cuts to plain meanness with a dose of political calculation thrown in, as Drew does. But there may be another explanation than congenital cruelty: Republicans believe they are adhering to a principle that they place above every other value, including compassion. That principle is the need to punish individuals whom they view as undeserving.

Though we Americans love to brag about our decency and concern for others, the punitive gene runs deep in our national DNA. It goes back to the Puritans, who, while professing charitableness and community, had a hard vision of life. They subscribed to the Protestant idea that, since you couldn’t know if you were one of the “elect,” predestined for salvation, you had to look for signs. A major one is a productive life.

The sociologist Max Weber fastened on this Protestant work ethic as the basis of Western civilization’s material success. As he saw it, capitalism was a by-product of the desire for grace. For the Protestants, hard work was not only a potential sign of personal salvation. It became a sign of national salvation.

The United States was particularly fertile ground for this. It was not only a Protestant nation, it took pride in being a classless society, a meritocracy — in which the secular elect would become just as important as the religious. The country’s governing principle was, and still is, that anyone can make it here if he or she is just willing to put in the necessary elbow grease.

This may be why no country seems to worship success as much as the United States. Our success is always perceived to be earned. This is American bedrock — our primary myth remains the social mobility of the Horatio Alger stories.

But if the work ethic was secularized and popularized, it was also politicized. If every individual was responsible for his or her own destiny — short of natural disasters, which some conservatives see as divine punishment for various cultural transgressions — there was no need for government interventions to redress inequalities.

In a world where everyone is on their own, help is not just wasteful; it is ungodly and un-American. If we are responsible for our success, we are also responsible for our failure.

It is impossible to know whether the modern Republican Party exploited self-reliance to destroy big government or sought to destroy big government as a principle of self-reliance. Whichever, this is now deeply embedded in modern conservatism.

When U.S. conservatives cut unemployment benefits, it is because giving the unemployed money allegedly discourages them from working. When they cut food stamps, it is because they claim recipients are gaming the system, though there is virtually no evidence to support this. Representative Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a Senate candidate, proposed last week that any child receiving lunches through the federal school lunch program be required to work to earn the food.

But Republicans wouldn’t be proposing these hardships if there weren’t a sizable contingent of Americans supporting them. Presumably on the basis that the disadvantaged aren’t really disadvantaged. They are unworthy.

Slashing benefits is only cruel if you are hurting the deserving. But in the conservatives’ view, the poor are never deserving. So you can hack away with a sense of righteousness. Poverty, they insist, is a choice.

This may help explain the conservatives’ anger at anyone who purports to help the poor. Doing so violates the sense of justice for many on the right. It isn’t just that conservatives hate government for taking taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. They hate it because it rewards indolence — where politics conjoins with sinfulness.

This has a powerful appeal. And it goes a long way toward answering the liberal quandary of why so many Americans who could benefit from government programs oppose them and work against their own self-interest.

The answer goes back to those Puritan roots. We are a nation of scolds and scourges. We hate the idea that someone can get something he or she didn’t earn. So what’s the matter with Kansas may just be that many Americans believe in something more important than self-interest, more important than compassion. Punishment.

Many Americans, certainly many Republicans, are more interested in making sure that the “undeserving” are not being rewarded than making sure the deserving are rewarded.

Sure it is punitive. Meting out punishment, however, is something we love to do. Which is why one of our major political parties can subsist on it. The Republican Party is the punishment party.

All this is worth remembering at this time of year. We may say we like giving. But a whole lot of us resent the taking. Or put another way, it is better to give so long as no one needs to receive.


PHOTO: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (C) is flanked by House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) (L) and Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as he speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 15, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

ILLUSTRATION (INSERT): Reuters/Library of Congress


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So what is worse, the opposing views of the two party system in regards to offending half the populous while enriching the other half, or the two party system itself? Denying the sins of Republicans doesn’t make them not true no matter how many times you say it, and it doesn’t erase the sins of the Democrats. Both parties have agreed to abuse the people of The United States for personal, short term gain. Do we really need to fuel the derision with this clap-trap.

“When they cut food stamps, it is because they claim recipients are gaming the system, though there is virtually no evidence to support this.”

Only someone that has never been poor could even think such nonsense. Stay one night on the street and I guarantee you will see people selling their snap cards for drug and booze money. (snap cards are what they call food stamps now. It’s just a credit card for food. There are no such things as food stamps any more. I thought you rich elitists that want to pretend you understand any perspective about the lives of the poor mite want to know that. Singing songs about being on the side of the suffering wont save you when the poor rise up.

Posted by ReverendJim | Report as abusive

@Flash 1022

“It is amazing to me how many do not have an understanding of economics.First, if states are to fund the programs for the needy an “economy of scale” would be lost. Taxes for funding at state level would be much higher than they would be at the federal level.”


If you are responding to my remark: “…One thing would be to bring all the programs you care about home to administer them at the state level….” then understand there is a huge difference between “funding” programs at the state level and “administering” them. That difference may describe the very essence of a federal system.

Words can be tricky, can’t they?

Posted by billbradbrooke | Report as abusive


Yes, regrettably, SNAP cards are a form of street money.

Perhaps, if there was community oversight of SNAP accounts, this type of abuse wouldn’t happen. There’d be more to go around. How significant is that?!

To be most effective, who should extend and supervise social services, the federal government or the very communities where the needs are apparent?

The leap from the “street” up to the bottom rung on the social ladder is unbelievably tall, very difficult. IMHO, only the muzzy-headed believe this can be coordinated from Washington, DC.

Posted by billbradbrooke | Report as abusive

I have friends that put off even attempting to try and find new jobs, every time they announced yet another unemployment extension, or tax incentive. When a fairly major natural disaster befell my area, they later estimated that half of the people who took free supplies and tried to make damage claims… didn’t even live in the affected area.

A huge number of people in this country are lazy and have no honor. You give them an excuse not to make an effort and they’ll take it… All ages, all races, all nationalities. You want honest people who don’t take advantage of the system, go to move to Norway or something. You aren’t going to find that mentality in America. Socialism doesn’t work in this country. Don’t believe that… go visit Detroit.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive


If you do know of people abusing the system for welfare there are channels to report this abuse.

Your failure to report the abuse, assuming you did not state that you did, is guilt of negligence itself, or you are lying.

I find most people who have complained of abuses in the welfare system are unable to provide documentation. That in fact the GAO audits indicate the fraud is less than three percent. My previous career in retail I would receive a pat on the back and a bonus for that shrinkage.

When you say “A huge number of people in this country are lazy and have no honor.”, what is that number that it is so huge?

dd606, you and your conservative friends must learn to provide documentation when making statements.

Stop being irresponsible in making outlandish statements, and take civic responsibility when you see fraud.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

The Prestestant work ethic was a mixed success in Europe where it was born. It was popular in Germany and the Scandinavian countries that were cold, less developed economically and less populated then the rest of Europe but did not take hold well in the more advanced countries of southern and middle Europe. It was grossly intolerant or any form of dissension and persecuted the Catholics from which it sprang in England and elsewhere. But the Catholics were inclined to see their own religion as a set of rites only and to forget any deeper meaning to it. They tended to be the more sophisticated and intellectually advanced societies as well.

Puritanism disgraced itself in the new World because of manias it clung to like the Salem Witch trials that some historians see either as an infestation or Argot that infected the Rye crop or as a nasty war between rival parties of the Salem comunity regarding the selection of a new preacher. But at the same time a scandal had erupted in the Court of France that involved witchcraft. Belief is black magic and witchcraft didn’t really subside until early in the 19th century. That was one of the reasons why “the age of reason” was so important to the development of western thought. The Chinese were not fully capable of quelling popular and dangerous superstitions until the Maoists years. Perhaps the Salem trails were a result of natural poisoning of a crop, a religious rivalry and superstition all at once? A perfect storm of sorts?

The Protestant sects in Britain – and this is very important – tended to break up immediately into rival sects almost from the start while the Catholic Church tended to maintain a unified theology. Both branches of Christianity could be ruthless in that pursuit.

Puritans may have needed their sense of cohesiveness – everyone must work to live – only as long as they were still exploiting an undeveloped hinterland. It had problems as soon as they tried to get above the level of subsistence farming and had to become more developed and even to trade with other countries. As their numbers rose – those devoted to agriculture continued to rise as new territory was expanded – further adding to Protestantism’s tendency to break up into more factions while the merchants and traders created their own urban communities that started to look and act Catholic again. The urban churches were wealthier and tended to be more lavish and ritualized, in a way. Religion was something urban people did on a schedule and the introduction of foreign goods and their exposure to foreign cultures made for a more sophisticated outlook on life. Puritans were very much into themselves and looked foolish, bigoted and very naive anywhere else. The Old testament tended to be more popular with the rural communities, because it stresses individual responsibility – the Story of Abraham and the patriarchal family while urban communities tended to think more about the rest of the book and the New Testament and the ironies and life and the need for communal charity. Catholic Churches tended to be filled with Saints or more contemporary examples of Christan values and were not as eager to spread literacy or higher education among the masses. Protestant churches tended to focus on texts.

Lets face it – religions are as much a part of staying alive and forming community values as any other aspect of living in the community.

Owl11 sounds like OOTS! It’s the same bitter and resentful complaint of the barren field.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The reason why people sell snap cards for booze and drugs is – when you are very poor it is the only way to feel happy. So they drug themselves into happiness and die of starvation.

The system we live in is also somewhat eager to prey on them to get them out of the way because they want to pursue happiness as cheaply as possible. You can have all the bad habits and lack of qualifications of the job market as the poor and rejected as long as you are strong enough to look like you don’t and are capable of gaming and bluffing the larger economy and the social system. You do not have to be highly intelligent or strong to be very rich and you do not have to be stupid and weak to be very poor.

Feeling unhappy is a curse in itself in a country that believes in being happy and looking like you are or it is a closed loop one can never get out of.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@paintcan, your second comment is very well said. I agree with it completely.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Hi TMC – I hope you don’t agree completely with the last line of the second comment. I think the first comment was the better history, but that’s awfully hard to sum up in a few words.

I remember a quote I once read or heard somewhere. I probably read it because most of my life was spent between the covers of a book. “Perfection is never complete and completeness is never perfect.” And there are a few little spelling errors I never seem to see until it’s too late.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

The “american way” of handling any legalities around an act percieved as sinful, is to make the sin as destructive to the sinner as possible and to insinuate it is gods intent. This is why we have illegal prostitution and cannabis use, and why alcohol and tobacco are legal. Prostitution and cannabis are relatively benign if used responsibly, and thus the pain must come from both the punative legal aspects and the black market dangers. A prostitute killed by a serial killer is seen as having received what she deserved by the good christians of america. You need neither the punative legal nor the black market for alcohol and tobacco to be dangerous, since tobacco will always destroy you and alcohol will typically destroy many, without further enhancement of their dangers. It is all the desire of the american christians to bring pain and suffering to the sinners. They claim that only God judges, yet they make laws based on their preemptive judgement. Granted some are sadists too, and have simply found the most effective outlet for their desires to cause pain. Typically only the leaders.

For those things not covered by the ten commandments, the “tough love” thing is just a way of making people suffer. A person truly interested in decreasing the suffering of the poor would consider decriminalization of all things not covered by the ten commandments. This system of punishment for non-victim crimes is surely evidence that Christians really are just in it to judge and punish, and some for the money. (I know the brainwashed won’t be affected by my statements, but the leaders know what I am saying). The bottom line is, treatment works better than incarceration, yet we choose to incarcerate. This is fact, you know those things supported by evidence that require no voices in your head.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive


“Owl11 sounds like OOTS! It’s the same bitter and resentful complaint of the barren field.”

I doubt even YOU know what you are trying to say here. By and large, fields here in the U.S. are NOT “barren” but well managed for appropriate production.

You and I squabble endlessly as to what is proper proportion of the proceeds thereof for the owner of the land, for those who farm it (if different); and the “fair” price of what is harvested to those who would eat it.

It seems to really bug you that there are those in America that both see and understand what is going on in this country and where it will inevitably lead.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Yes I do resent some pompous windbags.

The trouble with our comments is, you are convinced you do know what you are saying and always think you are right. I gave up thinking almost anything in life is truly predictable a long time ago. But it is still something of a bad habit to try.

And many others also justify launching extrmely destructive wars aginst people you obviously have nothing but contempt for. And all the time they drain resources for the domestic needs. This government squandered billions on the Afghans and Iraqis and actually condemned them to more years in a living hell as a result. And don’t deny it now, very early on you likened the Taliban to Hitler. They aren’t nearly the same ideas you know. And you are actually closer to the Nazi regime way of thinking than the Taliban. The Taliban are actually closer to the Puritans. We destroy their ways of life in the name of our own gut filling self interest, And if it doesn’t work – you can always retreat to your smug comforts and claim – “wisdom” and it is acceptable that man will murder man and even better that there e money to be made in them thar kills. Some fat-assed brain dead wisdom there, you old fraud. All because you are only barely literate, you don’t read much I can tell! Because you think you are the superior type and compassion and fairer dealing is something no one else deserves especially if it gets in the way of your enormous sense of upper middle class entitlement.

Is that clear enough for you! Sorry if my attempt at cultural and religious synthesis is a bit crude but it would take many inches of books on my shelf now to explain it all in better detail with all the contradictions and exceptions it really should contain, but it wouldn’t go well with a sip of B&B and a wine mag.
Buckminster Fuller used to do this sport of things all the time and he wasn’t always correct in every detail either but it was a joy to listen to anyone try to pull the whole thing together.

I spent all afternoon thinking about exceptions to my little nutshell of history in America but I can do that and you can’t. It’s the sort of topic that would be so illuminating if only more people thought more about the subject and just didn’t insist they know it all already.

So you have imitators good. Then I have more people to argue with.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive


When you have no worthwhile perspective or information you can always call others names. I participate here on Reuters to share MY experience and opinions, and explain or defend these as deemed appropriate.

Your incoherent, inconsistent rantings and ramblings regularly obscure why you post here, other than “it’s a hobby”. Because those unfamiliar with you occasionally take some of your words seriously, there is some duty to insert a dose of reality when your fuzzy hemp dream recollections wander too far from verifiable truth.

I have never compared the thinking of the Taliban to Hitler and his henchmen. I often compare the TACTICS of minority Nazis over time dominating and eventually controlling the thinking and lives of German society with the TACTICS of radical muslims to intimidate and terrorize “mainstream” muslim communities.

When all are too afraid to reject them and their reprehensible tactics and/or political goals, they can use mosques for armories, schools for recruitment, and otherwise mingle and disappear at will without fear of betrayal. Seems to work everywhere equally well.

Again and again you demonstrate how your brain is incapable of separating the wheat from the chaff of all the indescriminate drivel you subject it to. History in America is what it is without regard to YOUR “little nutshell” or any associated afternoon spent contemplating lint in some dusty corner of your mind.

Worthwhile thoughts, theories and goals can be brief and clear once distilled down to their basic essence. Knowledge and wisdom are much more than inches of books (unspecified) on YOUR shelf.

Perhaps most telling as to who and what you are is that every subject to you is another argument of bile and resentment. It is much more civilized and productive to engage in intellectual debate with more logic and less emotion.

Stirring, animated debate with an occasional sip of B&B is good exercise for a fit mind. Advocacy, like fencing, can be as refined as it can be intense.

But forgive me. These are concepts clearly beyond your experience or comprehension.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OOTs – You go on and on yourself and it is even further form the original topic. I really don’t acre what you think of me.

The country spend ten years wasting it resources at home and abroad on warfare and outrageous self indulgence.

If the entire edifice of this country’s politics and economy collapses because of that, I suppose it will deserve it. You “winners” – also the biggest whiners and not the type to despise the very well funded helping hand– can come up with the excuses.


Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

excuse me – don’t care what you think of me…

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Extremely accurate and perceptive article on what is truly wrong with this nation.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive