Beware of the Racial Demagoguery & the "Middle Ground"
By Carl Bloice, BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board
April 28, 2011
On April 17, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote
on the opinion page of the August New York Times:
Historically, the most successful welfare states
(think Scandinavia) have depended on ethnic
solidarity to sustain their tax-and-transfer
programs. But the working-age America of the future
will be far more diverse than the retired cohort
it's laboring to support. Asking a population
that's increasingly brown and beige to accept
punishing tax rates while white seniors receive
roughly $3 in Medicare benefits for every dollar
they paid in (the projected ratio in the 2030s)
promises to polarize the country along racial as
well as generational lines.
There's no reason to think that this supposed northern
latitude dependence on "ethnic solidarity" is anything
other than a figment of Douthat's confused mind, but it
is a way of leading into his erroneous and demagogic
thesis. Take the business about the beneficiaries of
Medicare being "white." As one of darker hue in the
program, I can refute that. The many elderly single or
widowed African American women, who retired with little
or no savings income and whose numbers grow each day,
might find the assertion insulting. Actually, black and
brown people are more likely than others to need
And, if there is any reason to anticipate polarization
along racial or generational lines it might be found in
resentment among future African American and Latino
working people retiring - as they do everyday - without
Medicare (or Social Security) as a result of decisions
hatched in 2011 by special "deficit" commissions
meeting in secret, or by some all-male, all-white and
all-prosperous "gang" of six politicians.
As far as "punishing tax rates" are concerned, Douthat
got it all wrong. The figures he cites in the column
are wrong and nobody is proposing any significant tax
increases on the wages that most black and brown
working people receive now or in the future.
"Douthat overstated the median income for a family of
four by more than 25 percent," wrote economist Dean
Baker April 17. "But hey, it's for a good cause, he
wants to keep taxes low."
About Douthat's "bizarre racial politics," Baker wrote,
"Given the wealthy's control over the media and its
ability to promulgate untrue information, they may be
able to direct racial hostility against retirees
getting Social Security checks of $1,100 a month and
who have access to decent health care. However, the
more obvious direction of resentment would be against
the wealthy who have rigged the deck to ensure that
such a large share of the country's output comes to
At Solon.com, columnist Joan Walsh called it "Ross
Douthat's racial paranoia," noting that his column "is
often such a dizzying combination of purported rigorous
logic and proud conservative bias as to be unreadable,"
but "Every once in a while, though, he gives you a
scary but important peek into the conservative psyche."
Referring to the word that began this column, she wrote
April 18, "There's so much bias wrapped up in that
paragraph, it's hard to unpack."
"I think President Obama is smart to begin to talk more
about our social compact with one another, as he did in
his budget speech last Wednesday," wrote Walsh.
"Douthat seems to be saying we can't have a real social
compact in a multiracial society; it only works in
monochromatic Nordic societies. I think it would be the
ultimate example of American exceptionalism to prove
True, but it's not a done deal. I too found President
Obama words on preserving Medicare and Medicaid and
strengthening Social Security to be somewhat
reassuring. However, those who would decimate these
vital social programs in the name of deficit reduction
haven't given up. They plot at night while most of us
This is what the President said February 25:
"We'll have to bring down health care costs
further, including in programs like Medicare and
Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor
to our long-term deficits. I believe we should
strengthen Social Security for future generations,
and I think we can do that without slashing
benefits or putting current retirees at risk."
Not much wrong with that, assuming he means bringing
down the expense of Medicare and Medicaid and not the
programs themselves and that "I think" is not an
expression of doubt. The real problem here is the way
they do things in Washington these days and the way the
White House has handled some important matters
recently. The question is whether standing up for
these programs is something Obama and his party is
willing to go to the mat for or is the statement merely
a negotiating position.
Here is what Obama said April 13:
Part of this American belief that we are all
connected also expresses itself in a conviction
that each one of us deserves some basic measure of
security. We recognize that no matter how
responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad
luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike
any one of us. "There but for the grace of God go
I," we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to
programs like Medicare and Social Security, which
guarantee us health care and a measure of basic
income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment
insurance, which protects us against unexpected job
loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for
millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor
children, and those with disabilities. We are a
better country because of these commitments. I'll
go further - we would not be a great country
without those commitments.
This is who we are. This is the America I know.
We don't have to choose between a future of
spiraling debt and one where we forfeit investments
in our people and our country. To meet our fiscal
challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will
all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to
sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long
as I'm President, we won't.
Strong words. But there is still the threat of a deal.
With public opinion across the political spectrum
clearly opposed to slashing the healthcare and
retirement programs, any negotiated settlement would be
undemocratic. But that doesn't seem to deter the
plotters. From the beginning their strategy has been to
force through a "bipartisan plan" that will allow both
sides immunity from attack from the other for
undermining Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Last week, economist Robert Reich warned against the
push to achieve the "middle ground" between the Ryan
Republican plan and the Administration's approach. `"We
continue to hear that the Great Budget Debate has two
sides: The President and the Democrats want to cut the
budget deficit mainly by increasing taxes on the rich
and reducing military spending, but not by privatizing
Medicare," he wrote. "On the other side are Paul Ryan,
Republicans, and the right, who want cut the deficit by
privatizing Medicare and slicing programs that benefit
poorer Americans, while lowering taxes on the rich.
"The Republican plan shouldn't be considered one side
of a great debate," continued Reich. "It shouldn't be
considered at all. Americans don't want it. Which is
why I get worried when I hear about so-called
`bipartisan' groups on Capitol Hill seeking a grand
compromise, such as the Senate's so-called `Gang of
To the consternation of many Senate Democrats, one of
those pushing the notion of splitting the difference in
the search of a `middle ground" is Sen. Dick Durbin (D.
Ill), a member of the ill-fated Simpson Bowles deficit
commission and a "gang" member.
A deal is still what the powerful elite wants and
expect to engineer. Douthat's comment indicates how far
some of them will sink to achieve it and Durbin's BC
Question: What will it take to bring Obama
home?equivocations are indicative of the lingering
threat. As does what George Packer described in a
recent New Yorker as Obama's record of "giving things
up before sitting down at the table."
Keep in mind that this back room wheeling and dealing
isn't about a ten or 20 cent an hour raise or a
percentage point tax increase. The negotiators
themselves admit it's about renegotiating the "social
contract," about curtailing or eliminating social gains
it took centuries to achieve and ushering in a new era
wherein the lives of working people become more
precarious and the wealth of the well-to-do more
secure. That it hasn't happened yet is primarily the
result of people pushing back. Keep on pushing.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice
is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National
Coordinating Committee of the Committees of
Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly
worked for a healthcare union
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