Paul Ryan and the politics of the poor

Over at In These Times, Bhaskar Sunkara argues Ryan’s entrance into the presidential race could redound to the benefit of the left:

The injection of a right-wing ideologue in Paul Ryan should, logically, move the race rightward. But since his stances are so extreme, calling for exploding Medicare and deeper cuts into the rest of the social safety net, the Obama campaign has incentive to highlight Ryan’s radical stances on these popular programs.

The Medicare line is especially important in swing states with lots of seniors, like Florida. It’s one of the reasons why Democrats have been keen to help elevate Ryan to national prominence, against the wishes of key House Republicans. The starkness of Ryan’s ideology—the Ayn Rand-quoting doesn’t help—has opened him up to charges that he doesn’t care about anyone but the super-rich.

And Josh Eidelson, writing at Jacobin on the ongoing welfare brouhaha, smartly identifies the Obama campaign’s defuse-by-triangulation strategy:

In the hours after the Romney camp debuted an ad hitting Obama on welfare reform, liberal commentators made a few important points: The ad’s allegation – that Obama had gutted “welfare reform” – was false, and undeserving of “he said, she said.”  Romney’s position – that state waivers betrayed the law – clashed with his prior stance as Governor.  And Romney’s message appealed to the same resentments that infused and instigated the 90’s welfare debates.

What’s gone nearly unnoticed is the zeal with which the Obama campaign stoked the same resentments in its pushback.  A campaign statement charged that Romney “petitioned the federal government for waivers that would have let people stay on welfare for an indefinite period, ending welfare reform as we know it, and even created a program that handed out free cars to welfare recipients.”  Only Obama can protect us from a Republican regime of hand-outs and Oprah-style free cars for the undeserving poor.

Don’t parry Romney’s rhetorical attack on welfare beneficiaries with a forthright defense of their right to live a dignified existence, of our obligation to our fellow citizens, employed or not. Obama is cut from the same New Democrat cloth as Clinton, so he wouldn’t deign to make the welfare-as-freedom-enhancer argument. I suspect, however, that political calculations are even more responsible for Obama’s stance than deep-seeded opposition to welfare laxity. As Eidelson notes, Obama– he of the erstwhile “most liberal senator” designation— was once incredulous of Clinton’s welfare law. And now? The former skeptic casts himself as Clinton’s (miserly) successor. In another rebuttal ad, he hits Romney for cosseting public aid recipients, maligning the former Massachusetts governor as “flexible on welfare.”

Man I love Democrats.

The Ryan plan and, to a lesser extent, the tapping of the Wisconsin reactionary are politically perilous because of whom they target. It’s one thing to block grant Medicaid, quite another to voucherize Medicare; senior citizens are a more powerful constituency than poor people. The poor’s impotence in American politics is  so pronounced, in fact, that calling them a constituency is almost deceptive, implying they’ve accrued at least a modicum of power. Save for a handful of particularly impoverished congressional districts (and well-organized communities), that’s hardly the case. (The middle-class has less sway than one might expect, too.) This is partially due to the inequities inherent in capitalism. The economic inequality that characterizes class societies ineluctably bleeds into the political arena, undermining, to varying degrees, democratic values like political equality and citizen agency. Strict campaign finance laws might mitigate this corrosion, but the underlying distribution of resources and power is the real determining force at work. Walls are ineffective if they’re built on a faulty foundation.

At times, against Sisyphean odds, poor people have challenged this power asymmetry, courageously agitating and enumerating their demands and critiques. The welfare rights movement of the late 1960s and early 70s represented the last large-scale efflorescence of this kind. Indigent activists mobilized against dehumanizing bureaucracies, prudish restrictions, and meager benefits. Boasting 20 to 30,000 card-carrying members and 540 local chapters, the most prominent movement group, the National Welfare Rights Organization, was the “largest national organization of poor people in the history of the United States.” Since its demise, the voting public has taken a harsh turn against public aid beneficiaries, the upshot of which has been an even more austere welfare regime.

The juxtaposition of the quotes above was intentional because again, I think Obama, Romney, and Ryan all correctly gauge the politics of austerity. They know that, even though Medicaid would be subject to deeper cuts under Ryan’s “Roadmap” (and sooner!), the bulk of attention is paid to the Medicare reforms it proposes. They know that that’s why the Ryan pick was viewed as risky in some corners, as would be an Obama viewed as soft on welfare. And, above all, they know the real danger in American politics is being seen as too concerned with the plight of the poor.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. You’ve got a good point here. I think part of this though comes from a long term process of mass identity shaping to define the poor as “other”, divided by more than income.

    The still-running assumptions of a “middle-class” so broad as to be by definition nonsensical (there has to be a lower and upper for there to even BE a middle) serves as a social/psychological block against asking messier questions about the way things are and how they got that way in the first place. In the US, “middle-class” is less an economic description than a cultural signifier — just look at all the people who during the ongoing collapse have learned or are still learning the difference.

  2. Yeah, not even fairly liberal politicians in fairly liberal jurisdictions believe anymore that welfare recipients or poor people in general have any rights

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