The Present Danger

By Alex Willingham

Vol. 6, No. 5, 1984, pp. 1-3

In the current presidential campaign, the forces of reaction have sought to win by controlling the tone of public discussion. By portraying Reagan's superficiality as innocent pleasantry, any real concern with issues can be put down as nuisance. If the Republicans succeed it will merely postpone candid discussion of the national condition and obscure the present danger.

For years Reagan has engineered a reputation as essentially harmless, good natured and tolerant. Now, the forces he has asembled, and who have assembled him, pose a real danger to the ideals of open and egalitarian society and to the gains we have made in recent years. Unless the Reagan Administration is defeated in November, popularly elected leaders will constitute the main threat to established freedoms.

The present danger arises out of this president's rhetorical stance for "less government" and the reality of an increasingly invasive new statism of the right wing. As federal domestic policy, "Reaganomics" is deceptively dressed as a comprehensive alternative to the social welfare state. In practice it has come to represent a marginal attack directed not against manifest shortcomings of welfarism, but against a few redistributive reforms developed since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

These programs applied innovative strategies to improve the lives of blacks and the poor. They were "re-distributive" because they promoted the "transfer" of money to the disadvantaged and mandated "maximum" participation by recipients. These programs covered the concerns of much of the progressive thought of the times: 1) an alarm that large sections of the nation continued to live in material poverty and 2) the belief that the ability of people to conquer misfortune would be enhanced by their participation in the policy making process.

These concerns dovetailed with the activism of the Civil Rights Movement and became interwoven with the fight to ban racism and all other forms of discrimination from our society.

In its heroic moments the Great Society tried to be affirmative. It sought to move away from safety net policies and to move toward strategies for empowerment. It realized that


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government's innovations of the past--for example Social Security or the G I bill--offered models which suggested how to adress current problems. It realized that piecemeal legislation would not overcome stiff resistance to an open political process. Bold action was needed: We got the War on Poverty (1963) and the Voting Rights Act (1964).

Innovative federal policies were enacted even in succeeding Republican administrations. In certain cases--Head Start, the Voting Righs Act, Legal Services--there have been powerful, positive results. The success of the effort--both in getting the attention of government and in realizing some of the intended goals--promoted an optimism about some federal programs.

But the Great Society was hardly an unqualified success. By the Carter years, with an array of social programs in place, and a Democratic administration in power, mounting doubt grew about the actual function of welfare policy. Improvement--although present--was incremental at best. A full-scale debate was about to start. It would have focused on the large residual population still untouched by the programs. Any number of possible reforms would have been debated including administrative streamlining, changes in funding levels, or decentralization. There would have been concern about the "professionalization" of the delivery system. The question would have been raised: after all, can the goals we seek be accomplished within the American two-party system?

An unheralded achievement of the Reagan Administration has been to coopt that debate. Reaganite hostility to Great Society goals and programs took the ground out from under the looming critique and transformed would-be critics of the troubled sub-system into defenders of the status que ante.

The Reagan forces tapped a preexisting skepticism. "Neo"-conservatives, some of whom were former advocated of reform, were the idealogical point-men for the Administration. Black neoconservatives--typified by Thomas Sowell--gave racial legitimacy to the view. The argument took the form of a general attack on government activity. In common, "neo"--liberals and "supply-siders" used the documentation of continuing misery to argue that positive government was bad and, in any case, could not deliver on the crucial matter of anti-poverty reform. At one point Sowell, who has never been accused of understatement, claimed that Brown v. the Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision against school segregation, was undue government interference. No sacred cows here: positive government was necessarily evil and especially so in trying to implement lofty intentions. Reaganites went to Washington determined to cripple its governing institutions.

What is revealing, however, is the limited nature of the cutback. The basic welfare structure remains in place even after a full Reagan term. There have been program cutbacks, to be sure, and they have had disastrous effects on the recipient population. Yet the troubled structure is still in place. No doubt much of this comes from congressional resistance.

It is possible to interpret these developments as a defeat for Ronald Reagan. In fact however, they seem to represent changing priorities of conservative forces operating at the helm of a powerful state apparatus. Now, in domestic affairs, the threat of the Reagan regime comes less from a frontal attack on government than in the way it would prune its operations to make this a more paternal, as opposed to participatory, bureaucracy. The positive state would become a tool for on-going administration of a permanent underclass rather than a means of its transformation.

The new statism of the Reaganites is the basis for alarm. It comes at a time when the Republicans have nearly completely capitulated to right wing extremist groups. The spiritual fervor of these groups is sustained by anticipation or expanding their influence through the exercise of official authority.


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Boring within the Republican party represents something of a turnabout for these groups. The fundamentalist network had been part of the base used by Jimmy Carter to gain national prominence. Yet Carter, whose personal religious expression fit the mode, disappointed many of the born-again--especialy in his formal allegiance to separation of state and church. This congregation has gone over to Ronald Reagan who is much less religious but who has been willing to support government-enforced prayer, segregated religious schools, and the like--and who is willing to individualize responsibility for whatever plight grows out of oppressive social conditions.

Reagan's posture encourages resistance among those who use race, sex or religious beliefs to protect their advantages.

When Reagan went to Washington, it first appeared that our greatest domestic threat would come through efforts to abolish social welfare programs that help the poor or, in attempts to frustrate the enforcement of hard-won civil rights gains. And, indeed, his Administration has cut federal support of basic human needs and has subverted the enforcement of justice. Yet, today the danger is not that the Reaganites will cut back on government power, but that they will use it to actively promote conformity. Insofar as Reagan, his New Right or business allies are perceived as merely racist or excessively frugal, we obscure the real threat his reelection will mean to the poor, to women, to minorities--and to our hope for democratic society.

Alex Willingham lives in Shreveport, Louisiana. He is editor of the Voting Rights Review.