The most talked about part of the deal Kevin McCarthy made with Republican radicals to become Speaker of the House involved concessions to those members on rules, powerful committee assignments for members of the House Freedom Caucus and the creation of a new select committee on the “weaponization” of government that would give Republicans like Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio an official platform from which they could undermine the investigations into President Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
And although there has been plenty of chatter about the effect this may have on the basic functioning of government, less remarked on but still significant is McCarthy’s pledge to force major budget cuts using the debt ceiling as leverage with the Biden administration. McCarthy has also agreed to pursue a resolution committing the federal government to a balanced budget within the decade, which could not be done without major cuts to Social Security, Medicare and a lot of what’s left of the American welfare state.
None of this comes as a shock or a surprise. Conservative opposition to social insurance goes back to the New Deal itself, with figures like the previous president Herbert Hoover denouncing Franklin Roosevelt’s policies as “socialism” that would place the nation on a “march to Moscow.” And of course, successive Republican Congresses have, since the 2010 Tea Party wave, tried to pass or force gigantic cuts to federal social spending, with the debt ceiling as their preferred hostage.
This juxtaposition of extreme opposition to social insurance with contempt for constitutional democracy and rule of law helps illuminate the tight connection between these two strands of contemporary Republican thought. Many of the Republican radicals who seized control of the House last week also voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and they have been vocal apologists for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
One of the key insights driving the creation of the modern welfare state was an adaptation of the older republican idea that self-government could not be sustained in the absence of economic security and independence. In the original conception, to own a farm and manage a homestead was to secure your economic standing and cultivate the habits of citizenship.
The closing of the frontier, the growth of industrial capitalism and the transition to wage labor for most workers forced Americans to rethink the terms of republican freedom. Populism — the insurgent movement that emerged in the late 19th century to put national economic life under democratic control by the “common people” — was one attempt to renegotiate the terms of American freedom. The more elite-driven Progressive movement, coming as it did in the wake of the collapse of the Populist Party, was another.
For the Populists, freedom meant popular control over economic decision-making. For Progressive intellectuals like Walter Lippmann, it meant security from economic want. “Instead of hanging human dignity on the one assumption about self-government,” Lippmann wrote, “you insist that man’s dignity requires a standard of living.” Government, then, is judged according to whether it is producing “a certain minimum of health, of decent housing, of material necessities, of education, of freedom, of pleasures, of beauty, not whether at the sacrifice of all these things, it vibrates to the self-centered opinions that happen to be floating around in men’s minds.”
You can think of the New Deal, in this context, as an attempt to synthesize the Populist and Progressive conceptions of freedom. Organized through industrial unions, workers have the power to shape their collective economic fate and, in turn, use the administrative capacity of the state to secure their economic footing and provide freedom from want and from dependency on the arbitrary power of private employers.
Of course, for the employers, this kind of arbitrary power is just another name for “liberty,” and a large part of the conservative opposition to social insurance and the welfare state stems from the belief that this expansion of state power is a threat to the sanctity of the market and the liberty of individuals to act within it.
But left untouched by a democratically accountable state, the free market is just another arena for the domination of the many by the few, of the subordination of labor to the dictates of capital.
Social insurance and the welfare state are more than a ballast against the winds of capitalism; they are part of the foundation of self-government and the cornerstone of democratic citizenship as we now understand it, where individuals are as free as possible from the arbitrary domination and authority of others.
Extreme opposition to social insurance and the safety net is, in that case, a natural fit for an authoritarian movement that tried to overturn the constitutional order and now wants to use the power it has to clean up as much of the scene of the crime as it can manage.
It is, for that matter, a natural fit for the entire Republican Party. Even after you exclude the MAGA radicals, you find a political party whose hostility to a broader, more equitable democracy is deep-seated and profound. You might even say that the rich tradition of American republicanism deserves a better and more faithful namesake.
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