BOSTON — There are several ways to parse this year’s presidential election. Some say it is about a more muscular foreign policy, a return to the Bush-Cheney approach versus the less belligerent policies of Barack Obama. Others say it is about taxes and fiscal responsibility. Still others say it is about the role of government in our lives.
But could it be that the basic compact of citizenship is what this election is really all about? Writer and novelist Adam Haslett believes that it is. Writing in the Financial Times, Haslett says that, although there “certainly is an argument over government finances under way… it is not about spending or taxes.”
Although both parties might argue otherwise, “it is an argument about race and national identity,” Haslett argues. It hasn’t really been about fiscal policy for decades.
“Any democratic system of wealth transfer relies on a sense of social solidarity,” Haslett writes.
During the post-WWII boom, Jim Crow laws insured that African-Americans were under-represented in the country’s political life. This “allowed a thin version of national solidarity to take hold.” This version envisioned a white nuclear family, which in turn, “undergirded Social Security and progressive tax rates.” White people could hold to the basic assumption that redistributed wealth flowed mostly to fellow whites who might be “slightly poorer than themselves.”
But then came the civil rights movement, voting rights for minorities, and integration of the public sphere. This produced white flight from the nation’s cities, and from the public school system, in both the north and the south. Many resisted the racial integration being imposed by the federal courts. Instead of money being distributed to white nuclear families, these dissenters saw money flowing to “shiftless” blacks and immigrant Hispanics.
Haslett contends that, for those who resist these changes in the national life, their understanding of the basic compact of citizenship is being threatened. In this new atmosphere, the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, in 1965, would be the “last welfare initiatives until the passage of Obamacare half a century later.”
Haslett argues that Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts are “irrational if viewed as a contribution to debate on sound economic policy.” But they make perfect sense “as an expression of deep animosity towards the idea of a shared national life.”
Obama may have said, when he took up his presidency, that there were no black, white or Hispanic Americans, just Americans with a shared destiny. But what if inclusion is not seen by a large part of the voting population as a desirable goal? For politicians on the right, Obama’s vision “threatens to drag people back into an integrated public imaginary they have been trying to escape most of their political lives.”
Haslett doesn’t take his argument further; if his theory has merit, it would explain the re-alignment of the two political parties in this country, with the GOP taking over the conservative South and more or less abandoning that nation’s cities. A majority of whites voted against Obama last time around, and seem poised to do so again.
As viewed through Haslett’s lens, the efforts of conservative judges to limit social justice initiatives such as Affirmative Action, and to undermine the entire structure of Roosevelt’s New Deal, make perfect sense. So do GOP attempts to restrict the voting rights of minorities. It might even explain the GOP’s obsession with being belligerent overseas, for if you see your own identity group losing power over fellow citizens with darker complexions, it makes you feel better if you can hold sway over what are seen as “lesser breeds without the law,” as Rudyard Kipling put it, in foreign countries.
It also might explain all the efforts of commentators on the right to brand Obama as somehow un-American, as the proverbial “other,” either as a socialist, or even a communist, or an anti-colonialist Muslim. The New York Times recently editorialized against anti-Obama conspiracy theories, and efforts to discredit important but non-political institutions in our government. “Mistrust of the most basic functions of government,” the Times said, “ can destroy the basic compact of citizenship.”
But if Haslett is right, then a good portion of the population already believes that the basic compact of citizenship has been undermined, if not broken by the politics of inclusion personified by Barack Obama.
Some republicans are aware that time is not on their side. Haslett quotes Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina as saying that the GOP isn’t “generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”