Republicans fail to suppress their contempt for working Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic
Senator Lindsey Graham speaking with attendees at the 2015 Iowa Growth & Opportunity Party at the Varied Industries Building at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa. (Gage Skidmore)

It’s still unclear to me what Lindsey Graham was complaining about last night. He and three other GOP senators made a stink over a provision in the $2 trillion stimulus bill regarding jobless insurance. It’s unclear because their complaint was incoherent.


This article was originally published at The Editorial Board

They claimed that workers would lose incentive to work if they received too much in unemployment benefits. They’d quit—and go on the dole. But unemployment benefits don’t apply to people who resign. They apply to people furloughed or laid off. Since “incentive” is about choice, and since choice is moot, their mewling was meaningless.

Unless they were trying to save face. Conservatism under Donald Trump is not the conservatism of my youth (think Ronald Reagan), but these people have reputations to protect even if their reputations are political fictions. They understand well what it looks like for “conservatives” who for years sabotaged the economy to wound a black president to all of a sudden support the biggest economic relief package in US history.

The Senate passed the bill last night, but at least Lindsey Graham, Rick Scott, Tom Scott and Ben Sasse had a chance to make-believe they are dutiful limited-government conservatives forced into compromising their principles by circumstance beyond their control. Never mind that they voted yes. Never mind that they could have voted no without jeopardizing the bill’s passage. Never mind, because the play’s the thing.

Still, if we understand their complaint as one of incentives, it’s worth dwelling on. Incentives are central to the economic ideology that has animated the Republicans since forever. That ideology holds that markets are efficient and know better than government how to allocate labor and resources for the benefit of the greater good. “Government interference,” even in its blandest form, is akin to Communism or sacrilege, depending on how much Heavenly import you imbues markets with.

It’s always been debatable whether the Republicans really believe what they say they really believe about the markets. (Leftists call it “neoliberalism” and blame both parties equally for its global economic dominance.) What’s not debatable is that the Republicans find ways around their “principles” when a Republican sits in the White House while rediscovering the zeal of the freshly converted when it’s a Democrat.

Deficits were no big deal during Reagan’s time. Deficits were the end of the world during Bill Clinton’s time. Deficits were nothing to worry about when George W. Bush was president. Deficits were so dangerous the Republicans could not in good conscience help Barack Obama lead the country out of the Great Recession. Now, deficits are trivial again. They’ll be apocalyptic with the next Democratic president.

Whether in good faith or bad, however, markets were still more credible than an activist government. Most people most of the time still thought equal opportunity for businesses was the same as equal opportunity for their fellow Americans. Belief in market ideology was so strong it shaped how people engaged the debate over welfare.

Some said the rich were greedy and held workaday Americans in contempt. That’s why they hated social insurance programs like food stamps, Medicaid and jobless benefits. That couldn’t be right, said the market faithful, who have made up a majority of Americans for half a century. The welfare debate wasn’t about the bigotry of the aristocracy against the plebes. It was about efficiency. It was about incentives. To think otherwise was to think the unthinkable: class war in a classless society.

Like I said, Graham and his cohort were plainly incoherent last night. I still don’t know what they were talking about. But there is one interpretation that makes sense to me as Americans enter into a period of mass death and astronomic unemployment. (Below is today’s jobless claims report in graph form courtesy of Bloomberg News.)

That interpretation is this: The rich can be trusted with public money, but not so everyone else. It’s OK to give Boeing tens of billions of dollars in relief aid. It’s OK to give corporations access to unlimited and cheap money from the Federal Reserve. But it’s not OK to give normal people an extra $600 a week, people who are at the same time being coaxed by billionaires into going back to work even at the risk of death.

When most people most of the time had ample faith in markets, and when the ideology of markets was credible, it was difficult to see the rank bigotry the very rich often express toward the not very rich. (Not being very rich means you obviously don’t deserving being very rich, which means you are richly deserving of your suffering.)

But I think that faith is waning. Unemployment rose to more than 3.3 million in a week. Deaths from the coronavirus pandemic hit 1,000 today. Markets are not going to save us. Indeed, the billionaires who control markets could make things so much worse. (They could literally kill people.) In a way, it’s fitting that Graham and others were incoherent. Their incoherence reflects a once-powerful ideology in deep decay.