Why Can’t We Have Nice Things?

By Robert Bernstein   |   August 30, 2022

It is well known that most industrialized countries have universal healthcare, good public transit, and free public college education. Why doesn’t the U.S. have these things?

A hundred years ago socialism was seen positively in much of the world as a way to share in the productivity of modern industrialization.

President Franklin Roosevelt and his labor secretary Frances Perkins worked hard to give working people basic rights and benefits. Some argue that they were the best friends the capitalists ever had, as they averted a movement to bring full socialism to the U.S. Working people received disability insurance, regulation of working conditions, and social security in old age.

During the period from the New Deal up until the late 1960s, most working people knew that it was the Democratic Party that had given them these benefits.

But there was a catch: These New Deal laws excluded agricultural and domestic workers. Which excluded most Blacks and other people of color. President Johnson changed this with his Great Society programs. Not only did Johnson bring us Medicare and Medicaid, he also expanded these social programs to include Blacks and other people of color.

Nixon used this as a wedge to create his “Southern Strategy” when he ran in 1968. He campaigned in the South and other historically racist areas claiming that Johnson’s programs were giving the hard-earned money of white people to “those lazy people.”

This worked for Nixon to win the election. And it worked to divide working people against their own self-interest.

Back in 1996 I met writer and sociologist Arlie Hochschild at a convention on shorter work time. A topic I will write about another time. She went on to study what is called the Red State Paradox: The fact that the states that take the most public assistance are also the states that vote most Republican and most against public assistance!

For example, Blue state residents in Massachusetts pay $2,343 more to the Federal government than they receive in benefits. Whereas Red state residents in Kentucky receive $9,145 more in benefits than they pay in Federal taxes!

Hochschild was so intrigued by this that she sought out “the most Red state paradoxical county” that she could find. It was Calcasieu Parish in Louisiana. The area around Lake Charles. She moved there and lived among the people there for five years. The result was her 2016 book, Strangers in their Own Land.

I watched her speak on BookTV about her findings. She was able to condense her observations into two narratives. After a while, she could come up to a stranger and could guess which narrative applied. And the stranger would say, “Yes! You understand!”

One narrative applied to people like a poor white woman who managed a mobile home park. She worked long hours and barely got by. She didn’t see why she should pay taxes to subsidize “those people” who she thought were lazy. She would rather give up any programs that might help her, just to be sure that no “undeserving” people got any.

The other narrative applied to the ever-growing number of white people who lived on public assistance. They were often addicted to opioids and were living on disability payments. They righteously felt they deserved it. If “those people” get public assistance for being lazy, I should get it, too. They had Black people in mind. But they, too, were willing to give up their public assistance if it could be guaranteed that “those people” didn’t get any.

Hochschild wrote the book for liberals to read in order to have empathy for these people. I admire her hard work and dedication to understanding. But it had the opposite effect on me. It just made me angry.

I often meet Europeans in the U.S. who warn me that Europe is also “moving to the right.” I ask them if their right-wing candidates are trying to take away universal healthcare? No, of course not. Free public college? No. Good public transit? Never. Meaning that their “right wing” is to the left of our Democrats!

But their right wing has the same mission as our right wing: To keep out immigrants who might become “those people” who might take the social benefits “we” have worked to create.

Perhaps we can have nice things if we stop seeing “we” as separate from “those people”? People who may work even harder than we do?  


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