Decades of Distortion - Page 11

The Right's Cornering Of The Debate

In documenting the threads of right-wing rhetoric on welfare, I have largely focused on newsletters, journals, and think tank publications. I am unable in this article to fully document the multiple ways in which the rhetoric was then marketed. However, others have noted this marketing in great detail: the use of direct mail scare tactics, the use of the media through televangelists and talk shows,10 the process of "selling" its propaganda,11 the rightist critique of media as "liberal,"12 the pressuring of mainstream media through boycotts of advertisers' products and letter-writing campaigns,13 the encouraging of think tank staff and "scholars" to write op-ed pieces14 - all toward the goal of "stirring up hostilities" and "organizing discontent."15

By the 1990s, the Right's "misinformation" on AFDC recipients and poverty had become mainstream discourse. While rightist Lawrence Mead16 in his book The New Politics of Poverty was stating as truth that "[t]he main cause of poverty the reluctance of increasing numbers of the poor to work,"17 Democratic D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was advocating mandatory Norplant injections for welfare recipients.18 As the Right's rhetoric on welfare became reputable, rather than fringe, Right spokespersons became regular media stars19 and newspaper columnists.20 Forums, conferences and briefings are held for members of Congress,21 with direct results in terms of Congressional proposals and debate.22 "Researchers" are asked on a regular basis to testify before Congressional committees on "welfare reform."23 The Heritage Foundation, and other New Right think tanks have been centrally involved in the development of Republican welfare policy and negotiations around the terms of various bills.24

Central to the Right's current success on cornering the welfare "debate" is the selling of the American public on the notion that dramatic increases in illegitimacy is a central problem in the US, particularly among African Americans, and that the existence of AFDC is largely responsible. The "selling" has been led in large part by Charles Murray, notably in his influential op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.25 This argument gave the Right a cover to discuss race:26

Within the black community, the increase in the proportion of births to single mothers has been particularly dramatic: from 23 percent in 1960 to 28 percent in 1969, to 45 percent in 1980, to 62 percent at the beginning of the 1990s.27

Yet as Michael Lind, in his recent book Up From Conservatism,28 has pointed out, this portrayal of illegitimacy statistics produces a deceptive impression. Census Bureau data documents that four-fifths of the increase in the proportion of illegitimate births result from married, employed African American women deciding to have fewer children, and that "the rate of babies being born to unwed black teenagers- about 80 per 1,000 unmarried teen-agers- remained virtually the same from 1920 through 1990."29 Still, Heritage's Robert Rector highlights "America's No. 1 social problem: the catastrophic rise of illegitimacy."30 And Adam Wolfson, in the Neoconservative journal Commentary, cites to William Bennett for the proposition that illegitimate birth rates rose 400 percent since 1960.31

Thus a hoax, not an error,32 has been perpetrated on white Americans; the "conservative disinformation apparatus" used an African American illegitimacy "epidemic" to further culture war politics.33

For weeks after the publication of his Wall Street Journal op ed, Murray himself appeared on numerous TV networks and his ideas were regularly referred to by other commentators.34 After deciding that the Republican "welfare reform" bill currently being debated was "too timid," William Bennett (Heritage Foundation fellow and co-director of Empower America) and others wrote follow up op eds which appeared in 25 major newspapers, and Bennett appeared on Rush Limbaugh's show discussing "welfare reform." Representative James Talent (R-Missouri), who proposed an alternative bill, ascribes the success of Murray's ideas both to the relative "moderate" status of Murray and Bennett (as opposed to Pat Buchanan or Senator Jesse Helms), and to at least a partial endorsement by President Clinton.35

Building on that momentum, when President Clinton released his "welfare reform" plan in June 1994, Neoconservative Irving Kristol (who had played a central role in translating Murray's ideas into political action) orchestrated a Capitol Hill press conference featuring Bennett and Congressional conservatives to denounce the plan as "marginal tinkering" and "half joke-half fraud." Over the next week, Kristol, Bennett and others were media stars, presenting a vision of AFDC as responsible for the country's moral decay.36 Representative Talent, Heritage's Rector, and the Christian Coalition were credited with driving the campaign against illegitimacy in the House.37

By articulating a definition of poverty that associated it explicitly with illegitimacy, then associating illegitimacy with race, the Right made it acceptable to express blatantly racist concepts without shame.38 For example, when Charles Murray wrote The Bell Curve ten years after Losing Ground, he argued that welfare should be abolished, not simply because of the economic incentives it creates, but because it encourages "dysgenesis," the outbreeding of intelligent whites by genetically inferior African Americans, Hispanics, and poor whites.39

When the Republican welfare bill was being debated in Congress in 1995, Representative John L. Mica (R-Florida)- holding up a sign that read "Do Not Feed the Alligators"- stated:

We post these warnings because unnatural feeding and artificial care creates dependency.40

Representative Barbara Cubin (R-Wyoming) compared welfare recipients with wolves.41 Representative E. Clay Shaw, Jr. (R-Florida) said that poor teen mothers were "children you wouldn't leave your cat with on a weekend".42

When a Latina mother in Massachusetts was charged with child abuse, her story became a cause celebre, not for expansion of child protection programs, but for welfare cutbacks.43 Governor William Weld sent all state legislators copies of the Boston Globe article about her family.44 He discussed the story with Jack Kemp and William Bennett (who "started to foam at the mouth").45 Months later, when he spoke at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, he began his keynote address with a description of this family as the symbol for all welfare recipients.

Next: The Think Tank Factor Continues -->
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