Denouncing Deadbeats As Political Strategy

by Rob Horning

14 July 2010


Via Ezra Klein comes this chart from Daniel Indiviglio:

That depicts the gap between available job openings and the number of unemployed people—both the official measure and the more comprehensive U5, which includes “discouraged” and “loosely attached” members of the prospective workforce (i.e. upstanding members of the reserve army of the unemployed). It appears quite obvious that many unemployed people would struggle to get a job no matter how hard they tried, and the resulting discouragement would make them feel worse about themselves and their skills than if they did go in for a stint of funemployment. So extending jobless benefits would seem like a humane and sensible thing for the U.S. government to do, especially considering it would function as economic stimulus to put money in the hands of those who urgently need to spend it.
But humanity and sensibility are not what mediated politics are about. Steve Benen calls attention to “the ways in which Republican lawmakers and candidates seem to actively dislike—on a personal level—those who’ve lost their jobs in the recession”—that is, the Republicans’ apparent eagerness to campaign on a theme of “to hell with the deadbeats.” Benen cites, among other examples, Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful Tom Corbett, who claims that “if we keep extending unemployment, people are just going to sit there,” as well as Sharron Angle, the Senate candidate in Nevada, who believes the unemployed are “spoiled.”

How could such a strategy succeed, particularly when the data is plainly against such notions and such assertions seemingly come across as heartless?  Part of the calculation probably involves writing off the vote of the unemployed, who may be too discouraged or congenitally unlikely to vote in the first place. Then one can factor in the consolation such rants provide those who managed not to lose their jobs and who may be suffering from survivor guilt. There’s solace in the message coming from ostensibly respectable candidates that those others had it coming it some obscure way that has been borne out by their willingness to remain unemployed.

And there is even the chance the deadbeats line will resonate among the deadbeats themselves. Inherent in the argument is an insistence on the relevance of individual agency, that one really can get a job if they try. The chart suggests that isn’t true, that individual agency matters only insofar as one can outcompete an ever growing number of competitors for a position, and for the losers no amount of agency will secure them a nonexistent position. But faith in the illusion of individual agency is hard to do without, especially in a society already so insistent about the glory of individualism. Who wants pity and reaffirmed powerlessness?

Republicans thinking strategically probably figure they can eke out a small majority by cobbling together those groups under the bogus banner of individualism and the respect for “hard work,” though their rhetoric in practice is negated by their policies of transferring the inherent risks of business on to workers and rendering the worker’s level of effort somewhat beside the point outside the realm of ideology.

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