Why Government Becomes the Scapegoat
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A New Acceptable Form of Scapegoating
Scapegoating is certainly nothing new in American politics. It has been particularly common among extreme right-wing populist groups throughout our history. The Know Nothings of the 19th century heaped blame on Catholics and immigrants for society’s problems. In the twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan pointed the finger at blacks and Jews. Today, instead of targeting and demonizing a particular religious or ethnic group, the target has often become politicians, bureaucrats, judges and the institutions of government itself.
This new target has a number of advantages for conservatives. First, it plays on traditional American distrust of government and politicians. Second, and more importantly, blaming the government seems to be a more sanitized and acceptable form of scapegoating. Those who do it cannot be charged with being racist or xenophobic. Most people today would not tolerate an effort to make racial or religious groups the scapegoats for society’s problems. But many are willing to stand by as the very same vicious tactic is used against government officials and politicians. This “sanitizing” of scapegoating has allowed it to become more widespread. This is the other thing that is new about this kind of political scapegoating – it has gone mainstream. This tactic is no longer limited to ultra right-wing kooks, but is now used by a major political party and by large numbers of average Americans. Targeting government has become the political witch-hunt that the whole family can enjoy.
The Mobilization of Hatred
But while targeting government may seem like a less pernicious form of scapegoating, it is not. It is still a malicious, misleading, and destructive process. As Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have explained, scapegoating is not a dispassionate attempt to understand the real sources of society’s problems, but a tactic that inevitably relies on the encouragement and exploitation of dangerous emotions. “Scapegoating [is] the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers.”16 Anger and demonization are in integral part of any scapegoating strategy. It relies on the mobilization of popular hatred against its target. You can see this in the kind of inflammatory rhetoric used by right-wing pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and others, when they attack government. They do not simply argue that certain policies are bad, they also try to demonize the policymakers, especially liberal, pro-government politicians. They vilify these government officials as “idiots,” “slime balls,” “Nazis,” “communists,” “traitors,” and “tyrants.” Sometimes the demonization is quite literal, as when liberal politicians are referred to as “evil leaders,” “agents of the devil,” and people “in league with the Antichrist.” The clear intention of this kind of talk is to fan the flames of anger, resentment, and hatred. Most Americans would not stand for it if this same kind of vicious language was aimed at a racial or religious group – if, for example, Jews were constantly disparaged as “idiots,” “traitors” or “agents of the devil.” But when these terms of vilification are aimed at government officials, many people simply turn a blind eye. That has to stop – we must oppose scapegoating and demonization no matter what group it is being aimed at.
The politics of hatred is a dangerous politics. It breeds irrationality and ultimately carries with it the threat of violence. We need not look too far to find examples of this violence. When President Clinton was elected in the 1992, the Republicans ramped up their virulent verbal attacks on government. Not long after, in 1995, two men associated with an extremist militia movement chose to act on their fears of government. The target of their political rage was the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. They denoted a bomb that killed over 100 government employees and many of their children.
In recent years, we again have seen conservatives intentionally encouraging more hatred and resentment against government. Not surprisingly, death threats leveled at President Obama increased by 400% over those aimed at President Bush. And there have been incidents of violence aimed at government officials. In 2009, Richard Poplawski killed three police officers in a paranoid fit about what he thought were President Obama’s anti-gun plans. In 2010, John Patrick Bedell, a rabidly anti-government libertarian, shot two police officers outside the Pentagon. Then in 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson Arizona. Six people were killed, including a federal judge and a child. Republicans and Tea Party supporters were quick to argue that Loughner was simply a disturbed and paranoid individual and these murders had nothing to do with politics. But clearly there is a pattern here. Anti-government forces have actively encouraged paranoia about government. They argued that health care reform would create “death panels” that would kill innocent Americans. They warned that the government would soon be invading people’s homes to seize their guns. Some suggested that Obama was the “anti-Christ,” and others maintained that he wanted to establish a communist or fascist dictatorship in this country. When such paranoid fantasies are being promoted by elements of the political right, it gives disturbed people a ready target for their own paranoia. Loughner may have been living in his own fantasy world, but it was informed by the real world of anti-government activists who were feeding his political hallucinations.
Shooting Ourselves in the Foot
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with scapegoating government is that it makes it much harder to solve our pressing social and economic problems. Whipping up feelings of anger and resentment against the government only encourages irrational thinking and distracts us from understanding the real causes of our problems. As the hatred of government grows, it pushes out reason and common sense. People caught up in these powerful emotions rarely stop to think clearly about whether government is really to blame or to consider alternative causes of our problems.
And when blaming government obscures the real sources of our problems, this makes it much more difficult to develop effective solutions. We will never have a more effective approach to lowering our poverty rate, for example, if we persist in the delusion that government policies are what are keeping people poor. And finally, scapegoating government not only distracts us from developing better solutions to our problems, it also works to delegitimize the only institutions that are large enough and powerful enough to successfully take on many of these social and economic problems. Blindly accepting the idea that “government is the problem” only undermines and weakens the very democratic political institutions that we must rely on to actually develop and implement the solutions we need. We are just shooting ourselves in the foot.
For what we can do to fight this scapegoating and promote a more realistic and positive view of government, see A Pro-Government Campaign.
1. Leslie Kaufman, "Republicans Seek Big Cuts in Environmental Rules," The New York Times, July 27, 2011.
2. David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer (New York: Free Press, 1997) p. 12.
3. Derek Bok, The Trouble with Government (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 43.
4. Cheryl Simrell King and Camilla Stivers, Government is Us (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998) p. 24.
5. President Ronald Reagan, quoted in USA Today, April 26, 1983
6. The Future of Freedom Foundation, “What is Libertarianism?” http://www.fff.org/aboutUs/whatIs.asp August 9, 2005.
7. Dick Armey, The Freedom Revolution. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1995) p. 212-213.
8. Philip Harvey, “Combating Joblessness: An Analysis of the Principal Strategies That Have Influenced the Development of American Employment and Social Welfare Law During the 20th Century,” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 21 (2000), pp. 679n3, 682, 705-709.
9. Timothy Bartik, “Poverty, Jobs, and Subsidized Employment,” Challenge 45 (No. 3, May-June, 2002), pp. 100-111.
10. Mark Robert Rank, One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 59.
11. Gordon Lafer, The Job Training Charade, (New York: ILR Press, August 31, 2004) p. 3.
12. The economic causes of poverty also explain why liberal anti-poverty programs have failed to make much of a dent in anti-poverty rates. Welfare and food stamps do nothing to increase the number of jobs available to the poor or to raise the wages of those jobs. In this sense, they were not intended to fix the problem of poverty, only to lessen the suffering of those who were poor. And in this effort they were very successful.
13. Cheryl Simrell King and Camilla Stivers, Government is Us (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998) p. 24.
14. Joseph Nye, Jr., et al, editors, Why People Don’t Trust Government (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 12.
15. Cited in King, p. 24.
16. Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right Wing Populism in America (New York: The Guilford Press, 2000), p. 8.