Punitive politics: Blame the Puritans
‘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