Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How do you explain "Socialism for the Rich" to Joe Sixpack?

We all have our different social networks. Personally, most of my friends are involved in community theatre, which means (at least in the DC Metro area) that they are pretty open-minded. Politically, most of my friends in the theatre community are left-wingers, although there is the occasional Republican, even of the log cabin variety. Considering I attended a Quaker school, almost all of my high school friends are liberal. Most of the people in my workplace are also on the left side of the political spectrum. My colleagues at work and my theatre and high school friends are all Obama supporters. My family is a different matter; my mother is a social and political conservative (she voted for Huckabee in the primary, and absolutely adores Sarah Palin), while my father is a Clintonite Democrat. Regardless of political position, everyone I know could be considered a political junkie.

Then there are my friends and associates in Delaware whom I see once a month in the Air Force Reserve.

While a few of my fellow troops are politically aware (on both the left and the right), most could not care less about politics. In fact, one guy didn't know how to pronounce the name of the Democratic presidential nominee. He represents, I believe, a plurality (if not the majority) of the American voting public. He's someone who prefers his information in easy-to-swallow soundbites and prefers quick-and-dry answers to questions that deserve complex responses.

Since the announcement of the $700 billion bailout that President Bush the Treasury Department wish to give to failing Wall Street corporations, the blogosphere has exploded with finger-pointing, accusations of hypocrisy, and most of all, the designation of the bailout as "socialism for the rich." Fiscal neoconservatives are critical of this bailout from a less-government standpoint, while Democrats are critical of any legislation that does not include provisions for increased regulation and oversight.

However, the debate amongst these various political groups will only be white noise when it comes to the average voter. Adam Smith? John Maynard Keynes? The New Deal? Henry Paulson? What are these things? It's just too complex to sit around debate. The consequences of the housing bust combined with the multiple bank failures compounded with government intervention revealing hypocrisy concerning government handouts is just gibberish to a lot of people. There is absolutely no way to break this down into something cut-and-dry.

So what do these folks rely on? Chain emails that spread misinformation. Spoon-fed news on cable. It's easier to condemn that hypothetical mother who keeps having babies simply to collect a welfare check (although the Welfare Reform Law passed by the Clinton Administration got rid of such loopholes), but it's not so easy to draw parallels to the proposed government bailout. And why not? Because of how we are raised to demonize our enemies.

With Ronald Reagan as the figurehead for laissez-faire economics and his famous line that "government is the problem," the neoconservative movement was able to capture and hold on to a sentiment that is easy to manipulate. Communism, in any of its forms, is what happens when the government steps in where it shouldn't. Government will take away your hard-earned money and give it to some welfare mom who should get off the pipe and get a job. Get rid of government, and let the free market make as much money as it can; everyone will benefit! But if you let the government look after you, it'll insinuate itself into every aspect of your life. If you let the government handle your healthcare, it won't be long before the government can deny a treatment you need. If you let the government help you, then you'll become dependent on it for any and all things.

With that creed, neoconservatives were able to simultaneously demonize government oversight and social programs by linking it to dictatorial communism. Deregulation allowed for corporations to do what they would. Tax cuts reduced the flow of capital into the federal government, and the budget deficit skyrocketed. Yet, even Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush realized that some money had to come into the federal coffers, so those either taxes were raised (Reagan), or reinstated (Bush). After the Clinton Administration's bipartisan effort balanced the federal budget (leaving a surplus), President George W. Bush gave it back to the American people, cut taxes, gave tax breaks, and we all lived happily ever after. (Due to my involvement in the U.S. military, I am hesitant to publish my unabridged opinions of our current president and his administration, lest I become a target of government reprisal.)

Many in America are still easily manipulated by the fear of communism, as if socialized medicine is a slippery slope to the GULAG or a one-child only policy. Yet when the government hands out bailouts to companies like Bears Stearn or AIG, the seeming hypocrisy of the government goes unnoticed. Why? Because businessmen who make money are not the enemy: they are the backbone of the American capitalist spirit that made the United States number one. They're not the welfare mom on crack who has babies to con U.S. taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. An attack on the American businessman is an attack on capitalism, and an attack on capitalism is an attack on America.

This is why many Americans will continue to support Republicans and neoconservatives, even as some are willing to criticize the bailouts. It's much easier to understand and hate an individual with whom you don't want to associate yourself (a welfare mom) than with someone who has taken advantage of the very regulatory system that he helped tear down.