This morning the Trump administration said that it would allow states to compel people to find work in order to receive Medicaid benefits. This is the first time in the over half-century history of the program that such requirements will be in place.
These requirements are bound to be disastrous for the poor, will likely increase poverty rates and negatively impact the health of our nation's poorest citizens. As such it is the latest front in Republicans' ongoing campaign of class warfare against the poor, the sick and the powerless.
Proponents will point to the work requirements enacted in Bill Clinton's welfare reform efforts in the 1990s as support for the move, ignoring the fact that those requirements were largely disastrous. While they may have boosted employment numbers among the poor at first, they did so by pushing people into unsteady, low-benefit, low-future jobs that did not last. Jobs that, to begin with, existed less due to anything in the reform measure than to the mid-late-90s economic boom which happened to occur at the same time. When that boom went bust people were forced out of those jobs and, with no welfare to fall back on anymore, found themselves on a lower rung of the economic ladder, in a worse off position than before. The only places where welfare work requirements experienced much if any success were in California and Oregon, where the requirements were married to robust and effective job training and placement programs, which were the exception, not the rule.
Today the sorts of readily available jobs for people forced to find work for Medicaid are even MORE benefit-free and transitory, reflecting the overall gig economy ethos in play. At the same time, states administering Medicaid programs are highly unlikely to offer meaningful job training and meaningful opportunities for advancement to these people, because that itself is expensive and would undercut the overarching efforts to slash Medicaid costs. As it is, extra costs are going to be incurred by states trying to monitor and police employment compliance, so there's no chance of real money being used to help people find good work. All of which is to say that, even if Republicans' wildest fantasies are realized and there is an initial spike in Medicaid recipients working, it is unlikely to be meaningful, it is unlikely to last, and we'll soon find ourselves with a lot of unemployed people who, unlike before, have no Medicaid coverage.
This may make people like Paul Ryan happy -- he is on record as having dreamed about slashing Medicaid since he was in college -- but it's immoral and cruel. What's more, the impact of it all will go beyond harming the poor. It will harm society as a whole.
When fewer people who need Medicaid have it, they will put off seeking primary medical care altogether and will only see physicians in serious or emergency situations. Most likely in hospitals' emergency departments, where they will, quite understandably, not be turned away. The twin effects of this are that (a) poor people's health will decline, exacerbating alarming trends we're currently experiencing like U.S. life expectancy decreasing for all but the wealthiest people; and (b) the costs of health care for everyone else will rise because someone has to cover the emergency care they receive.
There have been studies upon studies regarding the failures and flaws of work requirement for federal anti-poverty benefits such as welfare and Medicaid. The proposal announced by the Trump Administration this morning ignores them completely. This is not surprising, because the proposals are not about policy. They are about ideology and politics. An ideology which attributes moral weakness and failure to the poor and blames them for their plight. Politics in which bashing the poor and proposing to "get tough" with them, as if they are criminals, plays well with a certain set of often Republican-leaning voters, regardless of how morally bankrupt such messages are.
A simpler way of putting it: this is class warfare, with the rich and powerful attacking the poor and weak. Which side of that war are you on?
This morning I saw this:
I figured I'd make a joke. In response I tweeted "A secure job with benefits, a living wage and a pension?"
Not the greatest joke in the world, but they can't all be winners.
Quickly, I got this response:
And yes, that "socialism" was meant as a criticism.
It's one thing to demonize individual components of what was once America's labor landscape, such as unions, employer-provided benefits and the minimum wage. The right has been doing that for years. It's quite another thing to be so brainwashed by conservative dogma that you see an essential component of the social contract and that which created the American middle class -- people having good, secure, jobs -- as a bad thing, full stop. Yet here we are. My correspondent here is not alone, by the way. I've seen many, many people push back against the proposition that good jobs with benefits and stuff is good for America.
This is all part and parcel of Republicans turning terms like "liberal" and "socialism" and "union" into rank epithets. It's an effort that seemingly cannot and will not cease. Now it must extend to things like a living wage and pensions and job security. Never mind that your father and grandfather were able to make a good life for themselves and their family as a result of those things. Some people on the left like 'em, though, and people on the left are evil commies, so they must be bad things too!
Democrats are complicit in this, of course. As I discussed at length in my last post, in the 1980s they had no idea how to respond to the sophistry of using words like "liberal" as an epithet and they got creamed at the polls as a result. Since 1992 Democrats have moved heaven and Earth to avoid being called those sort of names. "Ha, ha!" Bill Clinton and his acolytes exclaimed. "You will never again win elections simply by calling us liberals! We've outflanked you!"
Except it wasn't just a matter of ducking the labels. Democrats, since Clinton was first elected, have disclaimed their identities as "liberals," yes, but they have likewise abandoned a huge part of their values and platform to better inoculate themselves against the name-calling. They stopped zealously advocating for workers and for the poor. They've supported right to work laws and private equity and executives and Wall Street interests whose goals are antithetical to working people. With few exceptions, they've had no answer or response to the crisis of employment in this country, characterized by people being transformed from employees to contractors with a precipitous decline in wages, benefits and job security.
I don't know how to solve all of those problems, but I do know that they are huge problems that must be solved lest America turn into an oligarchy in which the rich and powerful own and control everything and everyone else just begs for scraps. Problems of which ordinary Americans are all too aware and from which they are increasingly suffering but there are scant few political leaders willing to listen and willing to fight for their interests.
You ask why someone like Bernie Sanders could mount a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton? It's because there is a hunger for leaders willing to address this growing crisis. You ask why so many working people support a person like Donald Trump? It's because, however little he actually believed what he was saying and how bankrupt his ideas to solve them were, he did say things that acknowledged the crisis. While politicians contort themselves and their values in order not to be accused of being too liberal or too conservative or whatever, most people don't care about the labels like liberalism, progressivism, socialism, populism, you name it. They just want someone who will listen to them and help them make their lives better.
As I've been writing in this space over the past few months, we're in the process of a political realignment in this country. One in which working people, the poor and those who understand that there is more to life than the accumulation of wealth and more to government than the protection of the wealthy are, increasingly, finding their interests aligned. That's the case even if they have, historically, fallen on the opposite sides of the Republican/Democratic divide. Absurd things like someone calling out people advocating for good jobs as a bad thing is evidence that decades-old political programming is on auto-pilot now, divorced from what people actually desire and what is actually good for America.
Thinking America is better when people have a secure job with benefits, a living wage and a pension should not be a controversial idea. Those who believe it is are soon going to find themselves on the wrong side of the ongoing political realignment. Those who don't are going to find a lot of people to support them.
Today Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was rescinding Obama-era directives to U.S. Attorneys General ordering them not to target marijuana businesses in states which had legalized recreational marijuana such as Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and California. The move plunges marijuana-related businesses into legal uncertainty and will, no doubt, lead to a major backlash from state governments, small businesses and American citizens.
Why is Sessions and, by extension, the Trump Administration, doing this? Two reasons. One moral, one political. The moral component of it will get all of the attention, but it sort of bores me. The political one is far, far more significant. Indeed, I think it's a harbinger of a new political realignment I've been discussing in this space in recent months. A realignment which will do untold political damage to Sessions, Trump and those who follow their lead, be they Republicans or Democrats.
Let's quickly dispense with the morality of it: Sessions is obsessed with keeping marijuana illegal. He's long been on record about this. He believes it's a dangerous scourge that leads to crime and depravity and has vowed to stamp out its use. His move today will cause everyone to man their marijuana battle stations again. Sessions and his fellow moralists will offer their Joe Friday-meets-Nancy Reagan talking points, complete with citations to debunked studies of the dangers of marijuana. Everyone else will talk up the benefits of legalized weed and the desirability of normalized drug laws and decriminalization. We've heard all of this before. The former group is simply wrong, the latter is correct and it's ridiculous we even have this debate anymore. I'll leave it for others to take up again.
Not everyone is a zealot like Sessions. Most politicians who oppose marijuana legalization do so out of political calculation. There's one problem with this, though: polling shows that far more people support legalization than oppose it. Indeed, as Five Thirty Eight noted today, a record high 64 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. And it's not just lefties. Fifty-one percent of Republicans favor legalization. Given that politicians who make political calculations tend to make them in a way that favors going in with what the majority of people or, at the very least, a majority of what their constituents want, why would these guys continue to oppose legalization?
I believe they do so because of inertia. Inertia born of the political alignment of the past 40-50 years in which politicians have constantly fought and refought the culture wars that broke out in the 1960s. A war that, given all of the advances in women's rights, civil rights, gay rights and the overall liberalization of American culture since the 1950s, most believe was won by the liberals, but by purely political measures, was really won by conservatives and reactionaries. At the very least it is the conservatives and reactionaries who have controlled the discourse in these areas since at least 1980 and, in turn, have caused Democrats to opportunistically tack to the right.
It's this dynamic what has put us in the rather absurd place we're in today, with marijuana legalization and a whole host of other issues. Those who recognize this absurdity and break its cycle will find that those 1960s-era culture wars are not worth fighting anymore and that a new political alignment awaits them.
It took a hell of a lot of work, protest and, often, bloodshed to get there, but it's fair to say that liberalizing forces were ascendant in our national politics as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed. Medicare and Medicaid came online. Welfare and anti-poverty programs, however flawed they were or eventually became, had public support. Public arts, sciences and humanities initiatives, came into being. Environmental and consumer protection programs and agencies had real power and asserted real authority. Prison and legal reform efforts took root. Even Nixon and his gang didn't put much of a stop to it. They had other things on their mind.
None of which is to say that these initiatives were uniformly successful. There were lots of flaws, inefficiencies and wrong turns when it came to this stuff, some of it bureaucratic, some of it structural. While those flaws would be challenging enough to overcome in and of themselves, America also saw its crime rate rise and a couple of disastrous oil embargoes and recessions hit, one of which -- from 1973-75 -- that hit pretty damn hard. These crisis, poorly addressed by Presidents Ford and Carter, created an opportunity for conservative forces led by Ronald Reagan. Forces which began to roll back the progress achieved since the 1960s and which began to recast the nature of political discourse in this country.
If you win an election or two, you get the right to set the agenda, and that's what Reagan did after 1980. He cut taxes, social programs and regulations while massively increasing military spending and enacting laws and regulations that put the interest of business and the wealthy first. He likewise encouraged and enabled the ascension of religious and cultural conservatives who launched a war, in policy and rhetoric, against that which they considered undesirable and immoral. The word "liberal" soon became an epithet and liberal and progressive values were cast as un-American or, in some cases, anti-American.
One can argue about the prudence or success of Reagan's policies, and one can take issue with the manner in which opposition to his agenda was cast as un-American, but one cannot argue with the success of his undertaking.
Reagan cruised to an easy reelection in 1984 and his successor, George H.W. Bush, cruised to victory in 1988. These victories were almost always occasioned by the victor taking up the mantle of so-called Real Americans who were shocked and offended by everything that had happened in this country between 1960 and 1980. He and those who followed him made the promise, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, that they would return America to the way it was before that time. To that end, Reagan and his acolytes would bash working women and single mothers. They'd demonize minorities as criminals or as insufficiently subordinate. They'd scapegoat gays for a public health crisis that they themselves refused to acknowledge or address. They'd blame drugs -- at least certain drugs -- for societies' ills.
Democrats who tried to fight back against all of this were routinely trounced at the polls. It was pretty understandable, actually. The vast majority of active voters in the 1980s either came of age before the 1960s and didn't much like what they saw before Reagan came on the scene or made a lot of money in the 1980s and thus felt adequately compensated for leaving their youthful ideals in the past. People vote with their hearts just as much as their heads and the story of America that Reagan was telling them either made them feel better or made them rich. That's the heart and the head.
By the time the 1990s rolled around the Democrats had a serious goddamn problem on their hands. How do you fight political opponents who control both the hearts and the minds of the majority of the electorate? How do you take on forces of seemingly overwhelming superiority?
The answer: guerrilla warfare.
Bill Clinton and the New Democrats knew better than to launch a full frontal assault on Reagan's shining city on the hill or to relitigate the cultural battles of the 1960s and 70s. Those fights would be too hard. Rather than fight on those extraordinarily wide fronts, they would focus on tactics. They'd adopt a strategy of triangulation in which they'd pick some narrow battles in which they had a clear advantage while avoiding being dragged into fights they didn't feel comfortable having. They did so, in large part, by doing what guerrilla armies often do: going underground and trying to blend in.
Reagan and Bush could find success by casting their opponents as hopeless hippies or mindless moonbats, but what could they do when their opponents looked . . . a lot like they did? When they went out of their way to demonize criminals and the poor and to talk even tougher on drugs than they did? When the manner in which they favored banks and corporate interests were, more or less, indistinguishable from the way in which they themselves did? It was an impossible challenge, especially in a tough economic year like 1992. Clinton hammered Bush on his inability to feel the economic pain of ordinary Americans, Bush's efforts to portray Clinton as Mondale or Dukakis or McGovern or Carter were unconvincing and Clinton rode to victory.
Since 1992, Democratic politicians have almost uniformly aped the Clinton model. They have heavily emphasized their superficial economic differences with Republicans, mostly outflanked them in attracting the support of Wall Street and the entertainment and technology sectors and have done whatever they could to avoid taking bold or controversial stances on cultural matters unless or until public opinion led them to do so first (in which case they're, by definition, no longer bold or controversial stances).
The Democrats have found a lot more success with this tactical focus than they had back when they ran on progressive principles in the 1980s, but it has come at a huge price. For one thing, once you start playing the triangulation game, you have to keep finding new, seemingly fresh ways in which to contrast yourself with your opponents in the service of triangulation. Some of them -- like positioning the party as the best and only advocate for women, minorities and people of color -- are laudable. Others, like positioning the party as something akin to a consumer product -- the choice of celebrities and cool kids! -- are embarrassing and counterproductive. At the end of the day politics is about advancing a policy agenda and you gotta stand for something. Preferably something bold and visionary, not just something that can win you an election if everything breaks just right.
For their part, Republicans, generally speaking, have tracked further and further to the right economically and culturally, increasingly dependent on religious conservatives and, beginning in 2016, a quite small but newly bold and unapologetic contingent of white supremacists. People playing Ronald Reagan's game of castigating progressivism and trying to turn the word "liberal" into an epithet while still trying to fight those 1960s culture wars.
That has left us, politically, in more or less the same place we've been for decades: Republicans trying to paint Democrats as irresponsible hippies and moonbats and Democrats desperately trying to change the subject because they fear that such charges might stick. It's a matter of inertia. It's also madness.
It's certainly something which extends into our leaders' absurd views about marijuana legalization, with people like Jeff Sessions thinking that they can smoke out some hippies on the issue and use their support of pot legalization against them politically, playing up to the Silent Majority back home. Meanwhile, people like Hillary Clinton have taken a cautious, even calculated approach to the issue, seemingly more worried about protecting themselves from attack by cultural conservatives than in having a coherent set of principles on the matter.
It shouldn't be this way. Pretty soon it won't be.
As I wrote recently in reference to the tax bill, we're in the midst of a major political realignment in this country. Whereas, for decades, we had conservatives vs. liberals, right vs. left, Republicans vs. Democrats, those political fault lines are shifting. The policies of the current Republican government overwhelmingly benefit the rich, leaving the poor -- including poor people who call themselves Republicans -- in the dust. Likewise, many who call themselves Democrats -- including those in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street -- are doing just fine under Trump and a Republican Congress and are not likely to support Democratic candidates who would upset their lucrative apple carts, even if it would help most Americans.
Soon, if it has not happened already, these labels and these party affiliations are going to change to reflect the true political fault lines in this country, which primarily fall along lines of class, race, age and opportunity. On one side will be those who are interested in making the lives of most Americans, the poor and the middle class, people of color as well as white people, women as well as men, better. On the other side are those whose primary interest is in supporting business or the wealthy or those already in power or place of privilege.
Legalized marijuana may not, historically, be a needle-moving issue, but politicians who either dismiss it or auto-pilot the debate about it into that old culture war territory do so at their peril, for the electorate is quickly realigning itself with respect to marijuana as well.
All of which is to say that, when it comes to the matter of marijuana legalization, our politicians are hopelessly out of step with what the people want. Just as they are increasingly out of step with what they want with respect to all manner of cultural and economic issues. Out of step due to their devotion to a political arrangement that, however well it served them for several decades, is approaching obsolescence.
Those politicians who understand this will be our future leaders. Those who prefer to fight old wars will be left in the dust of history.