The Politics of Cruelty

Before you stop reading, no, this isn’t going to be a post bashing the Republican party as cruel for shutting down the government and effectively denying services that are utilized by those Americans least likely to help themselves. It’s about how the Democrats, given this situation, might use cruelty to their advantage. 

We seem pretty far away from a solution to the government shutdown because it is in neither party’s political interest to re-open the government. Republicans can claim that they are standing up against Obamacare specifically and government spending generally; there’s a certain logic to shutting down a government that you have proclaimed is wasteful and inefficient at best and the enemy of the public at worst. Democrats have no reason to be seen as giving in to Republican demands, especially when the media has framed this as a petty squabble led by a small faction of extremists willing to hold the country hostage because they don’t like a law that was passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme court and “ratified” by a presidential re-election. Media narratives tend to be sticky, and I doubt that, even if the Republicans gave up on all their demands and it was the Democrats who then refused to open the government until the Republicans backed down on the debt ceiling, the public would change its mind and begin blaming the Democrats. So why wouldn’t the Democrats press this advantage?

One reason might be that public opinion polls are running squarely against the entire Congress, not just the Republicans, and that America’s chief Democrat, President Obama, isn’t all that popular either. But I think a more significant reason is that keeping the government closed hurts poor people, and Democrats, at least liberal ones, are psychologically averse to inflicting pain, especially on those who can least afford to bear it. Republicans, on the other hand are more inclined to let the poor suffer, if not actively make things worse for them. (I get this summary of Democratic and Republican attitudes towards inflicting pain from Tom Edsall’s book, The Age of Austerity which neatly compiles a lot of data from opinion polling and other research in chapter 2). So it will be difficult for Democrats to allow this shutdown to continue any longer than it has to, especially if it means no headstart classes for poor children. 

But maybe they should. After all, many of the recipients of government aid live in very red Republican-held districts. It’s possible that these people might be turned against the right wing if they can be led to believe that the Republicans are responsible for their lost benefits. It shouldn’t be difficult to maintain this belief, even if it isn’t true, since it makes more sense to believe that conservatives would cut benefits than liberals. After all, liberals don’t have the heart, right? And it’s not likely that Democrats are going to lose any votes for cutting benefits — especially, say Social Security disability benefits — in these states, or even in blue states, because what are appalled liberals going to do, vote for Republicans? 

When you take into account the persistence of media narratives and perceptions about the characteristics of Republicans and Democrats and add in the idea that people will be swayed by their own economic interests, it seems plausible that a prolonged shutdown that cuts deep into the economic lives of red-state republicans might possibly turn out better for democrats. In other words, they might have to be cruel to be kind. 

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