Turning the Little People Against Each Other Is Conservatives' Second Most Reliable Strategy
by Neil H. Buchanan
The eviction crisis in America is no longer "looming" but has already begun, thanks to Senate Republicans' refusal to extend protections against evictions and also to their cavalier opposition to renewing income supports for people who have been laid off during the roiling economic disaster of 2020. The Trump Administration joins its Senate enablers in not caring about those millions of desperate people -- people who are not only losing their homes but are having their credit records tainted in a way that will make their lives more difficult for years or even decades to come.
(Side note: My use of the term "reserve army" here and in Tuesday's column is a reference to Marx's "reserve army of the unemployed," which captures the idea that employers like weak economies because unemployed would-be workers are a useful threat to current workers who might otherwise get uppity. The analogy here is, I hope, obvious, even if the lefty nerd-reference is understandably obscure.)
My hypothesis in Tuesday's column was that the failure to renegotiate leases and mortgages was essentially a matter of tunnel vision, with the non-breaching side of housing contracts stubbornly insisting on doing during a crisis what they would be doing about "deadbeats" when times are good. Here, I want to discuss the broader reasons why our system seems so incapable of groping its way toward a next-best solution that is both humane (preventing evictions and all that follows from them) and economically smart (reducing losses for owners/bankers as well as for their counter-parties).
To be clear, I refer to contract renegotiations as the "next-best solution" because the best policy would clearly involve spreading the losses more broadly through a Treasury-funded system of supports that would allow people to cover rent payments and mortgages in full each month. My hypothesis is that the divide-and-conquer strategy that conservatives have long used to turn people against each other causes far too many regular Americans themselves to decry these solutions as immoral bailouts. This, in turn, allows business interests and their Republican water carriers to continue to punish people for being the victims of bad luck.
But allow me to return briefly to the eviction question, as a way to frame the issues. The simplest situation that I could imagine would be a person who owns a duplex and lives in one side while renting out the other. Her renter loses his job, and the landlord has a choice: declare the renter in breach and pursue eviction, or talk to the renter and ask what his current sources of income supports (such as non-federally-supplemented unemployment benefits) would allow him to pay in rent.
I am in no way downplaying the difficulties even in that simple situation of each party's attempts to determine the best negotiating strategy. Even though they probably know each other at least a bit (and might even like each other), that does not mean that either side would completely trust the other. But so what? That is what negotiations always involve. Some negotiations would probably break down, but others would reach a new agreement. Yay, private ordering! I suspect, in fact, that a fairly large amount of this is actually happening but is not deemed to be newsworthy (even if reporters know about it, which seems unlikely).
But in my column on Tuesday, I talked not about one-on-one negotiations between owner-occupiers and the people who live on the other side of the wall but about landlord/investors with multiple buildings and multiple units in each building. That makes the negotiations enormously more complicated, because the landlord knows that people will talk among themselves, and it could set a bad precedent to allow even genuinely needy renters a break. This means that there could be an equilibrium in which landlords accept a certain number of empty units as the price of keeping rents up on everyone else. Again, however, it is not at all clear that this is going to explain every eviction decision, or even the bulk of them.
After reading my column, Professor Dorf contacted me with a hypothesis that focused not on the "bad example" aspect of reopening contracts among some renters/borrowers but instead on the reactions by the renters who have not lost their jobs and thus have not fallen behind on their rents/mortgages. As he put it in an email:
"In 2008-2010, there was a fairly widespread view among people who were still able to pay their rent or mortgage that it wasn't fair that they had to do so while others were being relieved of the obligation to do so. This complaint was irrational, of course, because low occupancy creates safety and other risks for neighbors, while high neighborhood foreclosure rates adversely affect the values of all houses in the neighborhood. Some people understood this, but the 'it's not fair' meme was nonetheless pretty widespread."
This describes a very real phenomenon. Indeed, the emergence of the Tea Party movement -- even though it ultimately became an AstroTurf phenomenon fed by Koch money -- is often traced back to a famous on-air rant by a right-wing news reporter, who railed against bailing out the "losers" who could not pay their subprime mortgages. The not-actually-highbrow version of that argument is the "makers versus takers" framing by pseudo-intellectuals like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who disparage unlucky people for being morally defective leaches.
Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" comments during the 2012 presidential campaign similarly included his describing the supposed moochers as people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it." These shiftless bloodsuckers are the problem, you see. These millions of Americans, who did not inherit fortunes (and, in Romney's case, a place in a political dynasty) or receive other untold advantages, are in the conservative imagination fully to blame for what is going wrong in their lives.
But it is one thing for true believers like Ryan or oblivious rich guys like Romney to say in a zillion different ways that non-rich people have only themselves to blame for being non-rich. The key is in getting millions of those very people to not only believe it but to enforce it against each other. And that is what Professor Dorf's comments highlight so nicely. If the people pulling the strings can manipulate everyone into blaming themselves and insulting each other, then the game is a lot easier to win.
We see variations on this attitude -- "I'm not getting helped, so that loser shouldn't get anything, either" -- all the time. Proposals to cancel student loans bring forth moralistic stories about what I once called "Paradoxically Perfect Millennials," who paid their debts and thus supposedly deserve to have other people suffer to validate the sacrifices of the virtuous few. I called this a paradox because millennials are usually disparaged for being spendthrift eaters of avocado toast, yet suddenly we learned that some of them are ideal, upstanding citizens whose rectitude justifies punishing those who do not have access to the sources of support enjoyed by their self-styled betters.
In my Tuesday column, I referred to a business owner in Seattle who became famous in 2015 for setting a company-wide policy that every employee would be paid at least $70,000 per year. That is roughly $35 per hour for a full-time worker, more than double what even the "Fight for $15" in Seattle and elsewhere would provide. The owner of the business told reporters that some of his employees were quite upset (and, if I recall correctly, some even quit) because they did not think that other workers should be paid so much. Even though the disgruntled workers were not being paid less (although the owner in fact cut his own compensation), they were simply pissed off that their relative advantage over their presumptive inferiors had been eroded.
This is all part of the long-discussed What's the Matter With Kansas? problem, in which conservatives convince people to work against their own interests, ultimately to the benefit of the haves over the have-nots. It is truly astonishing how effective this strategy can be, and I do suspect that it plays a role in the eviction crisis. Even when everyone knows that people are losing their jobs, incomes, and homes through no fault of their own, there is a default idea that "losers" should not be allowed to "work the system" and thus presumably cheat their hard-working, taxpaying neighbors.
One of my college friends took that illogic to the extreme. In his thirties, he moved to take a new job in Raleigh, North Carolina, at a time when population growth in that area was outstripping public services. New highways were being built rapidly, only to become jammed with traffic almost immediately. At one point, it turned out that there were not enough police officers to patrol all of the new roads effectively, which led to the tragedy of a woman being raped after her car broke down late at night and she had to walk miles to find help. (This was before there were cellphones.)
In the ensuing cry to add to the local police force, my friend was unmoved. Why? "She should have had enough money to have a car phone." (Note to younger readers: Car phones existed for decades, but they were bulky and very expensive. They were even used in movies and TV shows as a sign of wealth and influence.) I then tried to put it in economic terms, suggesting that having many people buy expensive car phones was wasteful compared to having everyone chip in through their taxes to solve the problem by hiring another patrol officer. His response: "Why should I pay more in taxes just so somebody in City Hall can give a job to one of his cousins?" Even though that is much more expensive and wastes resources? "Yes."
I have long since cut ties with that former friend, but the conversation has stuck with me as a distillation of how anti-government attitudes overlap with the outright cruelty of blaming the victim. At the time, this ex-friend seemed to be a complete outlier. Now, he is indistinguishable from most of the other angry white guys who populate the Republican Party. (He was also very big on conspiracy theories, by the by.)
In the title of this column, I noted that "turning the little people against each other" is actually the "second most reliable strategy" upon which conservatives rely. Republicans know that some large-enough fraction of Americans will vote against their own interests (making workplaces less safe, allowing air and water to become polluted, leaving millions of people on the street in the name of "efficiency") because they do not trust their neighbors. But what is the most reliable strategy?
Need we ask? If it is possible (and, for conservatives, necessary) to turn people against each other by making them jealous and distrustful even of people with whom they have a lot in common, then it is easy as pie to turn people against others on the basis that "those people" are different -- which means defective and inferior. Not everyone is going to believe that all of their neighbors are in on the grift, but fear of outsiders is all about exploiting ignorance and playing up supposedly scary features of the unknown hordes.
Conservatives' most reliable strategy, then, continues to be bigotry pure and simple. And this is where we have to return to the fact that Donald Trump did not turn the Republican Party into an organized force to heighten and exploit racial and ethnic divisions. They had turned themselves into that organized force over the previous half of a century or more.
From Barry Goldwater's "states' rights" opposition to the Civil Rights Act (which current Senator Rand Paul has decried for imposing anti-racist rules on public accommodations), to Richard Nixon's "law and order" (Trump's favorite Summer 2020 tweet phrase), to Ronald Reagan's amping up of the Southern Strategy, to George H.W. Bush's "Willie Horton ad," to the full-on racist attacks on the Obamas (including, of course, Trump's political origin story in birtherism), the Republicans had been laying the framework for Trump's emergence for generations -- all the while putting in place a judiciary that laid waste to the Voting Rights Act and allowed voter suppression efforts to proceed and intensify.
In the end, then, even when there is a lot to say about the specifics of any given situation, the bottom line remains the same. The modern conservative movement stands for an extremely unpopular policy agenda. The only way to make that fly in a democracy is to pursue a multi-pronged strategy to turn people against each other and, just to be sure, to dispense with democracy itself.