Those undeserving ‘other people’: from Obamacare to Brexit

obamacare repeal

Sarah Kliff said an interesting thing recently. Of course, the Vox senior editor says a lot of interesting things. If you’re at all interested in the twists and turns of US healthcare politics you should absolutely being following what she says. But one thing she said recently particularly jumped out at me.

Talking on Vox’s Weeds podcast, she said:

A lot of the Trump voters I talk to, the question I ask them is: ‘Why did you vote for Trump when you have Obamacare?’ And the answer, that surprised me, that I got a lot, is: “If I lose my Obamacare, y’know, as long as other people are losing it too, that’s fine.”

I talked to a guy in Tennessee two weeks ago… I asked him: “Do you think Trump’s going to give you something better?” And he said: “Y’know, Trump probably won’t give me very much, but at least he’s not going to give other people very much either.” And it felt like a lot of resentment of other people who are getting benefits. It’s like an idea that there were people who don’t deserve these benefits who are getting them…

And this is all theoretical at this point, maybe it changes when you actually lose your health insurance. Like this is someone who was very happy with his health insurance. Had just had cataract surgery. Thought Obamacare was working well for him. And maybe actually losing coverage, things change.

But this is something that’s come up unprompted again and again in the reporting that I’ve been doing… a willingness to say: “I’m fine losing what I have if it means these other people also lose what they have.” I don’t know how that ends up shaking out, but it’s something that surprised me in the reporting I’m doing.

But should we be surprised?

By coincidence, on the same day I listened to that podcast I was also reading a new book on the politics of charity in the UK. The authors had conducted a survey to ask again a series of questions that were asked in 1991, to see how much attitudes towards charity and the role of government had changed in the past quarter-century. One of the questions they repeated was whether or not the respondent agreed with the statement: “people should look after themselves and not rely on charities”. Where opinions in 1991 were divided but more often against than for, by 2015 they had swung pretty clearly in towards that view.

Breeze and Mohan
Source of data: Beth Breeze and John Mohan, The Logic of Charity: Great Expectations in Hard Times (Palgrave Pivot, 2016), p. 10.

This led the authors to conclude:

“there is a general view that people should look after themselves and not rely on charities, perhaps indicating that charity is viewed as something that exists for the benefit of ‘other people’ rather than the reality that most of us are both donors and recipients.” 

So, does that mean people (or, I guess I should say, we) have become less caring and generous?

There’s certainly nothing new, either side of the pond, in a sense of injustice and anger being directed against the undeserving other, whether they that might be seen as unscrupulous “benefit cheats” or feckless “scroungers”. Anyone unsure about this should read John Welshman’s Underclass: A History of the Excluded since 1880.

The Republican campaign to repeal Obamacare in the US and Conservative welfare reforms in the UK have simply been the latest political initiatives to speak to such passions. But this is not simply a feature of social welfare debates. It is endemic in the broader politics of our moment in history.

The election victories of Trump and the Conservatives were both driven by a widespread and weaponized sense of being on the outside of a system designed to work in the interest of someone else. Critical reactions to the Black Lives Matter protests and the ugly immigration rhetoric surrounding both the US Muslim travel ban and the Brexit referendum all show that this notion of the ‘undeserving other’ is inexplicably bound up with questions of race and ethnicity – but it is not defined by them.

As I was reading, in both 1991 and 2015 there was small majority in support of the statement: “we should support more charities which benefit people in Britain, rather than people overseas”, but the outright disagreement with it halved (from 24% down to 12%). In the global context – with the rise of anti-immigration parties across Europe, the violent spread of Hindu and Buddhist nationalism in parts of Asia, and plenty of other worrying developments – this looks like a modest shift in attitudes against sending our hard-earned taxes to help them other there.

Race is just one (hugely important, but not defining) dimension to the cultural cleavage that has opened up in industrialised countries around the world between the Somewheres and the Anywheres, as David Goodhart calls them. The Somewheres are those who feel rooted, with an identity defined by a sense of place and community, typically angry about being left behind. The Anywheres are more likely to move around from place to cosmopolitan place, making the most of professional and cultural opportunities wherever they find them. The resentment that drives the politics of one is plain baffling to the other.

These are the new dividing lines in our political world, but it would be wrong to assume everyone on one side of that line is racist or that the split is the same old one between left and right. Another surprising turn up of Sarah Kliff’s reporting has been the growth of support for a Canadian-style single-payer health system amongst Trump voters.

This is the disorientating context for each political skirmish. And the wide angle lens that makes this clear is what comes most naturally from studying History. Making sense of the random within the chaos is our bread and butter, but it’s not usually what anyone turns to us for. Historians tend to be called upon to provide ‘lessons from the past’. Yet when we do, we tend to go back into our silos.

Instead of focusing in isolation on the messaging that has successfully appealed to different kinds of voters, whether healthcare reforms have ever actually addressed people’s core concerns, or on the running count of injustices perpetrated against immigrant communities, we should be drawing all these together.

As much as studying History is about tracing the roots of the world around us, it’s also about understanding the past on its own terms. By extension, if we call upon our historical knowledge and insight to navigate the world around us today, we must recognise the otherness of now as well as the otherness of the past.

While there’s nothing new about kicking back against the ‘undeserving other’, we have to acknowledge that it has come to define this chapter of our shared story. And the amount some of the Somewheres are prepared to sacrifice in the process should alert us to what’s at stake here – how much the political agenda could move if the underlying debate continues to be pandered to rather than tackled head on.

There are worse things than losing an election.

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