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Wednesday, July 17, 2013
The Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to cut the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program support by $20.5 billion, thereby going on record to eliminate food assistance to nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly senior citizens and working families with children, in a weak economy.
The bill ultimately was defeated when that same group failed to support other provisions of its own party’s effort. But that same GOP caucus came back soon thereafter and voted to separate the SNAP program from the Farm Bill in an effort to position the food program for major reductions.
In both of these cases, a major share of these legislators embraced a prevailing brand of radical thought afoot these days in the GOP that argues that seniors and the poor — even those who are working — and other groups who need governmental assistance represent a cancer on society. In this telling, any public program aimed at providing succor to another citizen has been labeled suspect, undue or unnecessary. In the House tea party caucus, individuals receiving aid are labeled “takers,” living parasitically off those who are “producers.” The truth is that none of this argument has an empirical basis, and the reality of poverty and hunger is far more complex than this narrative suggests.
As discomfiting as this contempt for the idea of owing anything to the democratic community is, it was nonetheless given a boost recently by the U.S. Supreme Court when a majority on that bench struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That decision immediately permitted several GOP-majority state legislatures to proceed with actions aimed at reducing access to the polls for minority, poor and elderly voters.
To reach their ruling, the justices had to ignore recent Republican Party use of voter identification and registration requirements as well as redistricting to keep members of groups (the poor and minorities especially) that they perceive as less likely to vote for their candidates from casting ballots in the name of preventing non-existent fraud. Following the court’s decision, Texas, for example, quickly implemented registration and identification requirements that a federal three-judge panel had previously declared discriminatory.
It is the cynical, sweeping and cruel character of these actions toward the hungry, and toward the vulnerable and minorities more generally in these two realms of action, that I find difficult. The Supreme Court chose to rule on the voting rights provision and to ignore willfully the empirical reality of ongoing assaults on voting rights in Republican-dominated states.
For voting rights, the question this scenario raises is, why do GOP legislators believe they can simply declare major portions of the American citizenry as undeserving to be members of the political community? For public support for those in need, the question is, why do Republican legislators perceive it permissible to consign a child or a senior citizen to hunger on the abstract basis that they are “takers”? How do these legislators justify the idea that we can live in a society in which some are allowed their rights and others are systematically deprived both of those rights and of their means of sustaining themselves? How can we call such a society democratic at all?
These are unsettling questions, and I am saddened to raise them. I am heartened that Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia has expressed interest in ensuring that all citizens have unfettered access to the franchise. One may hope that others in his party will listen and act soon to stop their efforts to limit this singular democratic right. The nation is too far along already on a path to declaring some Americans “rights-worthy” and others not on the basis of discriminatory criteria that appear rooted, finally, in fear, contempt and quest for power.
Perhaps revisiting their party’s embrace of efforts to block minority access to the ballot, now ironically available thanks to the high court’s Voting Rights Act decision, will prompt GOP leaders to rethink their assumption that the poor and vulnerable constitute parasites on the body politic. Republican Party actions concerning voting and the hungry and poor rest on a view of political community that is ultimately illiberal and undemocratic. All of this has resulted in a prolonged attack on the very idea of democratic community and of a shared common good.
I hope Republican leaders will soon come to realize that the party’s assumptions will neither conduce ultimately to their quest for power nor sustain a free society in the long run.
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