15 million Americans were “food insecure” in the United States during 2012. The Great Recession has increased the number of Americans who do not have sufficient food by 30 percent. The fastest growing group of people who need some assistance with obtaining sufficient food to maintain a basic standard of living is the elderly. Hunger in America is estimated to cost the U.S. economy 167 billion dollars.
Approximately 20 percent of American children live in poverty. Food insecurity and hunger leads to a long-term decline in life spans and a diminished standard of living for whole communities.
Last week, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to cut 39 billion dollars from federal food assistance programs. Their vote is more than just the next act in the ongoing politics of cruelty by the Republican Party in the Age of Obama.
It is a decision to kill poor people.
In America, discussions of poverty are linked in the public imagination to stereotypes about race, class, and gender. The face of poverty is not white (the group which in fact comprises the largest group of recipients for government aid). Instead, it is the mythical black welfare queen, or an “illegal” immigrant who is trying to pilfer the system at the expense of “hard working” white Americans.
Discussions about poverty are also easily transformed into claims about morality and virtue. Consequently, while the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is very efficient and involves very little if any fraud on the part of its participants, stereotypes about the poor can be used to legitimate the policing and harassment of Americans in need of food support through mandatory drug testing and other unnecessary programs.
Here, the long-term end goal for Republicans is revealed for what it is—a desire to make being a poor person into a crime.
Such a project serves a broader effort by conservatives to further transfer resources upward to the 1 percent from the American people. The decision by Republicans to further punish the poor, while the United States is in the midst of one of the greatest economic calamities in recent memory, also exists in the context of a Republican Party whose last presidential nominee suggested that 47 percent of the American public are human leeches and parasites.
Their vote to cut food assistance programs (as well as the social safety net more broadly) exists in a bizarre political moment when the Republican Party is possessed by a radical and destructive ideology, one that is a mix of Ayn Randian fantasies, austerity and neoliberalism run amok, and libertarianism processed through the carnivalesque freak show performance and eliminationist shtick of Right-wing talk radio.
The Republican Party’s hatred of poor people overlaps with its use of white racial resentment and symbolic racism to win over white voters in the post civil rights era.
For decades, conservatism and racism have been political intimates in the United States. The Great Recession and the rise of austerity politics have facilitated a frightening union of those forces on the American Right.
With the introduction of the “Southern Strategy” during the Nixon era, and now spurred on by the election of the country’s first black president, The Tea Party GOP has been fully transformed into what is best described as a “Herrenvolk” political organization.
“Herrenvolk”–what literally means “the Master Race” or “chosen people”–is a description of a society where citizenship is tiered and hierarchical along lines of “race”. As such, the dominant group receives the full benefits of social services, transfer payments, and other supports from the State. The out-group, marked as the Other, is viewed as not deserving of such resources.
South Africa and Nazi Germany were Herrenvolk societies. The United States during its centuries-long slave regime, and then the many decades of Jim and Jane Crow, was also a society organized along similar principles of racialized citizenship.
In this arrangement, the poor and others among the out-group are stigmatized as “useless eaters” who should be separated from the body politic if some other use cannot be found for them.
I use this powerful phrase with great care. While originally used by the Nazis and the American eugenics movement to describe the handicapped, as well as the physically and mentally disabled, “useless eaters” can also be understood in the context of a Herrenvolk society to include those “surplus” people who are not “properly” contributing to society.
History echoes. For example, during the 2012 election (and through to the present) Republicans have used the language of “makers” and “takers” to describe their view of American society in which the former are “productive” citizens, and the latter are “drains” on society and “surplus” people.
The Republican Party demonstrates its Herrenvolk ethic in a number of other ways too.
Most importantly, the Republican Party’s Herrenvolk value system is enabled by its voting base where 95 percent of its voters in the 2012 presidential election were white.
The policies which result will almost by necessity serve “white” political interests, however perceived or defined by the Republican leadership and its media apparatus. This claim is buttressed by Eric Knowles of New York University whose recent research details how the Tea Party serves as a white identity organization for its members.
It is also important to call attention to how the Tea Party is both older and whiter than the nation as a whole. The country which they yearn for and “want to take back” is an appeal to the world of Jim and Jane Crow, unapologetic white male privilege, and where white people were subsidized and protected by the State at the expense of others.
As highlighted by Ira Katznelson’s essential book When Affirmative Action was White, the white middle class in the post-World War 2 era was a creation of the federal government.
The VA and FHA home loan programs were not equally accessible by blacks and other people of color. The G.I. Bill, a stepping stone to education and middle class identity, was also practically limited for African-American veterans and other people of color.
Those and other similar programs made the white American middle class and constituted one of the single greatest moments of wealth creation in the history of the United States. Such policies were examples of racially tiered citizenship in practice as day-to-day government policy.
Herrenvolk America is the dreamland and formative political and social experience that the Tea Party, as the beating heart of the Republican Party, yearns to create.
In chasing the dream of a conservative political Whiteopia, the Republican Party has also succeeded in rolling back the voting rights of racial minorities, young people, the elderly, and the poor across the country.
It also uses the racially incendiary language of “secession” and “nullification” that is drawn directly from the American Civil War and the “States Rights” movement.
This is a practical embrace of the white supremacist politics of Jim and Jane Crow, the neo Confederacy, and a rejection of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement.
The faux populist language of “real Americans” deployed by Sarah Palin for example, is a clear signal to a sense of “us” and “them”, a divide that cannot neatly be separated from a sense of a shared racial identity on the part of the speaker and its intended audience where to be “American” is to be “white”.
Birtherism is predicated on racial bigotry and the idea that for many white Americans a black man is de facto not a “real” citizen. Thus, Barack Obama is symbolically unfit to be President of the United.
The use of coded and overt racial appeals by Republicans to attack President Barack Obama is further evidence of how white racial resentment has triumphed as a type of common sense language for the Right in this political moment.
All white people do not benefit from being members of a Herrenvolk society in the same way. Anticipating this arrangement, activist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois famously described white skin privilege as a type of “psychological wage” that does not always translate into equal material gains or rewards for its owners. In many cases, Whiteness and white racism actually hurt white people.
Thus, the following puzzle: the Republican Party is cutting food stamps under the cover of punishing the black and brown poor; in reality, white people in the heart of Red State America will be hurt the most by such a policy.
In the Tea Party GOP’s dream of Herrenvolk America all white people are equal—and borrowing from the Orwell’s classic book Animal Farm—but some white people are more equal than others.
The Republican Party has voted to kill the “useless eaters” by cutting food assistance programs. But, data on food stamp use from the USDA suggests that such a policy will cause great pain to Republican voters.
How do we reconcile this contradiction?
Ultimately, populist conservatives and the Tea Party base are so drunk on white identity politics that they are unable to realize that the plutocrats and the 1 percent have just as much disdain for them, regardless of their common racial identity and skin color, as they do the black and brown poor.
Class trumps race. Unfortunately, the common good is betrayed again by how too many poor and working class white conservatives cling to white identity politics instead of seeking shared alliances of mutual interest, aid, and support across the color line.