03 March 2010

Conservative Psy-Ops: Fear of the "Nanny State"

Conservatives and libertarians rarely sound so contemptuous as they do when they describe the alleged liberal ideal of a "nanny state" designed to take care of citizens whom liberals allegedly (and contemptuously) presume to be helpless in life without the aid of government. Here's an example of satirical conservative ventriloquism from a recent column by Michael Barone:

You are victims. You are helpless against the wiles of big corporations and insurance companies and you need protection. You need the government to take over and do things you cannot do for yourself.

It's a common theme among conservatives. There's a variation specifically addressed to blacks in which the "liberal" supposedly tells them that white America is so irredeemably racist that they must depend on the government for all the necessities of life. That's one I hear all the time from Mr. Right, for instance, but one he's never been able to back up with an actual quote from any recognized liberal. Likewise, I'd like Michael Barone to show us even one quote in which a liberal, progressive or Democrat explicitly states that the average American is "helpless."

Needless to say, to the extent that I am liberal or progressive, I reject the characterization. But I don't think comments like Barone's are really meant for me. Like most opinion columnists, whether conservative, liberal or centrist, he preaches to a choir. His readership is conservative, and his comments are meant to rile them up by making them think that liberals think that they specifically are helpless. Diatribes against the "nanny state" or "Obama's nanny care" are meant to make conservative readers feel insulted. The headline for Barone's column spells this out: "Obama's nanny care insults the American spirit."

Barone believes that Americans have a cultural hostility to feelings of dependence on government. He claims that "Americans are more likely than Europeans to believe that there is a connection between effort and reward. And to believe that they can improve their situation by their own hard work and ingenuity. As a result, Americans cherish their independence." Independence, in this case, is defined as a refusal to be dependent on, or indebted, or obliged to anyone else. Capitalism allows Americans to believe that, so long as we throw money at each other, our mutual dependence is actually universal independence and individual liberty. That's not my point for today, however.

My theory is that the "nanny state" slander is only effective on people who actually feel anxious about their supposed independence, those susceptible to an unreasonable shame at receiving aid for any reason from one's own government. Writers like Barone may hope to shame liberal readers by invoking the nanny state (though his pseudo-populist rips at "the educated class" will more likely just insult them), the potency of the slander depends on the fears of conservative readers who worry that they are not as independent or self-reliant as they're supposed to be. People to the left, meanwhile, take interdependence for granted and rightly see their government as a resource for assistance in tough times. They also see regulatory government as a proper safeguard against the constant efforts of "big corporations and insurance companies" to screw us over, given the obvious inequality in power and resources of corporations and individuals. I don't think you have to be an academic or a European, as Barone implies, to see things this way. But to see things his way you have to be incorrigibly vulnerable to partisan psychological warfare operations designed to make you feel insecure about your independence, not to mention your standing as an adult, and to blame liberals for your insecurity. By appealing to anxious pride, by telling people not to think of themselves as "victims," polemicists like Barone are actually playing them for suckers.

1 comment:

d.eris said...

It makes sense, imo, to read such commentaries on the "nanny state" together with the very same people's demands for a virtually limitless "daddy state," i.e. the national security police state and surveillance society. The desire for the "daddy state" and the rejection of the "nanny state" should probably even be seen as part of the same psychological/ideological mechanism. There are tons of interesting observations that could probably be made on the basis of that contradiction.