Commentary Politics

5 Ways the Right Tried to Punish Women, Children, People of Color, and the Poor in 2013

Adele M. Stan

If there's any unifying theme to the barrage of right-wing attacks launched over the past year, it's the politics of punishment--of teaching you a lesson.

It was a year marked by attacks on so many fronts that, for progressives, the year to which we bid farewell is recalled as a blur of battles over reproductive health, voting rights, marriage rights, the social safety net, public education, and, of course, health-care reform.

If there is a single theme to be drawn from the battles of 2013, it is far more base than a contest of ideology; it is the vindictive turn that right-wing politics have taken. For the lawmakers of the right, there is no longer a fight for which a mere win or loss on the merits is an acceptable outcome, not after they’ve riled their rabble with a lust for retribution. This was the year of “we’ll show them” politics—the politics of vengeance.

Right-wing politics have always been long on heartlessness and short on compassion. If your ultimate goal, in a society where social and economic inequality abounds, is the accumulation of more power by those few who already possess it, there’s really only one way to stay on top: Convince sizable numbers of not-so-powerful people that their well-being is threatened—not by your greed, of course, but by those who stand to gain in a more equitable society.

“Uppity” women, people of color, non-heterosexuals, people who do not conform to gender norms, and those of any sex or race who are poor have long unwillingly served as the deflective foils for the right-wing dons who stand to gain from the destruction of government they ultimately seek. Over the course of the last 30 years, a traditionalist segment of the white middle class was enlisted as infantry in the electoral army of the right, spurred by fears of the devolution of the patriarchal family structure, and the specter of minority status for non-Hispanic whites.

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Once, the mere rhetorical demonization of the marginalized, taken together with the denial of their rights, was enough to sate the rabble, but no longer—especially since the second inauguration of the nation’s first Black president. Here are five examples of the punitive rationales behind measures sought or positions held by right-wing politicians in order to show their constituents just how willing they are to teach a lesson to those who demand equality—or just a fighting chance at it.

1. Require women seeking abortion to submit to state-ordered, medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds. Among the increasing numbers of measures restricting access to abortion, ultrasound requirements, formulated by abortion foes as a purported means of discouraging women from following through with an abortion, are nothing new. Some 22 states have pre-abortion ultrasound requirements on the books, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The anti-choice group Americans United for Life bases its model legislation for such requirements on an unproven assertion that when a pregnant woman views an image of her fetus, she will bond with it and decide against ending her pregnancy.

If a side-effect of requiring a medically unnecessary ultrasound prior to performing an abortion creates an impediment to accessing an abortion due to increased cost and/or an extra visit to a clinic that may be far from home, it’s one that arguably advances anti-choice advocates’ stated goal of reducing the number of abortions. But when it comes to measures that require medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds (which use a probe that is inserted into the patient’s vagina), it becomes clear that the intent of the lawmakers who support such measures is clearly punitive. And if you think the issue of mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds prior to having an abortion went away after Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell took a drubbing for his proposal—forcing him to add a transvaginal opt-out to an otherwise dreadful and paternalistic ultrasound measure that ultimately passed into law—think again.

A law passed by the Wisconsin state legislature in July does so more cleverly, requiring clinics that have transvaginal ultrasound technology equipment on the premises (intended for use in medically appropriate circumstances) to use it on any woman seeking an abortion if it provides the best image of the embryo or fetus. Early in pregnancy, a transvaginal ultrasound is the only method by which such an image can be obtained.

According to the Associated Press, when the abortion restriction bill, which also requires that doctors who perform abortions have hospital admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, Republican Gov. Scott Walker told reporters, “I don’t have any problem with ultrasound. I think most people think ultrasounds are just fine.”

Anti-choice lawmakers introduced a similar bill in the Michigan legislature in February. It has yet to receive a vote.

2. Poor children would be made to work for food. In a nation that possess such wealth as does the United States, you might think it a given that consensus exists against child labor and for feeding hungry children. Not so. And if you’re running for the U.S. Senate from the State of Georgia, you’d best show potential voters that you’re willing to punish any kid who dares to call your attention to the fact that there are hungry children in a nation said to feed the world.

At least, that appears to be the thought process of Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who currently sits on the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the federally subsidized school lunch program designed to feed children who might otherwise never eat a full meal. In remarks to a meeting of the Jackson County Republican Party earlier this month, Kingston suggested that children given food by the state should either earn their keep or otherwise pony up for that mac and cheese. As reported by Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel:

“Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria — and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money. But think what we would gain as a society in getting people — getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch,” he said.

3. Poor people would be left to go hungry. To hear Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) tell it, low-income people who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should be cut off, because they’re living too high on the hog. The average per-person monthly amount received by recipients of the federal food assistance program (which is commonly referred to as food stamps) in Gohmert’s home state: $122. And 42 percent of single mothers, historian Ruth Rosen reminds us, rely on SNAP to feed their families.

His constituents, Gohmert said on the House floor during a debate on the farm bill, had seen people buying king crab legs with their SNAP cards. So, by his logic, you can’t blame them for wanting to cut people off. Another reason poor people on SNAP shouldn’t be receiving benefits, according to Gohmert: They don’t pay income tax. (Of course, that’s because their wages fall below the threshold at which the income tax kicks in. They still pay into Social Security and unemployment insurance, and pay other taxes.)

But the number one reason poor people shouldn’t get nutrition assistance, according to Gohmert? Because they’re fat. They don’t really know what hungry is, so let ‘em find out. As reported by Raw Story, Gohmert said, “We don’t want anyone to go hungry, and from the amount of obesity in this country by people who we’re told do not have enough to eat, it does seem like we could have a debate about this issue without allegations about wanting to slap down or starve children.”

The dispute between Democrats and Republicans over funding for the food program has proven to be a major sticking point in the quest to pass the annual farm bill, which comprises the SNAP and school lunch programs. Republicans who wish to appear as adults complain that the price tag for the program has simply grown too high, as the recession took its toll on family incomes. Those who do not wish to appear as adults simply blame the those eligible for the benefits for needing the help.

Although the House and Senate have each passed versions of an agriculture bill, the gulf between the chambers on food-stamp funding is so wide that a final version has yet to be worked out, prompting Congress to adjourn before the holiday recess without having passed a bill. The House version of the bill would cut $40 billion from SNAP over the next ten years, while the Senate’s bill would cut $4.1 billion over the same period, which the Congressional Budget Office reported would amount to a $90-per-month loss for some 500,000 households. A compromise is said to be in the works for an $8 billion cut.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is facing a tough re-election battle next year, and is eager to please a vengeful Tea Party, which never much cared for him, anyway. Perhaps that’s why he thinks food stamps should come with a work requirement, much like Rep. Kingston’s idea of a school lunch program.

“We need to move in the direction of having a vibrant, productive, expanding economy,” McConnell said in remarks to an influential agriculture group in his home state. “And you don’t do that by making it excessively easy to be non-productive.”

4. The long-term unemployed deserve no mercy. You’ve heard the term “jobless recovery”—and in parts of the country, the end of the recession has been just that. There are nearly three unemployed people for every one job opening in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which doesn’t take into account education level, employment sector, or regional differences in employment. But right-wing politicians say the people who lost their jobs because of the Great Recession or a disaster such as the BP oil spill are really just lazy. So, in the budget compromise bill worked out between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), an extension of emergency unemployment benefits was left out. And then, with current emergency benefits set to expire three days after Christmas, affecting 1.3 million Americans, Congress skipped town for the holidays.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said he was all for the initial 26 weeks of the unemployment benefit extension that comprised the initial emergency package, but after that, people should be ready to be on their own (whether or not, presumably, actual jobs are available). Extending benefits further, Paul said, “would be a disservice to these workers.”

“When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy,” Paul said on the December 8 episode of Fox News Sunday.

Democrats are vowing to bring the emergency unemployment extension up for a vote as soon as they return from the holiday recess, but it could be tough going to get it through the House.

5. The working poor should be denied health care. When the Supreme Court ruled the Affordable Care Act to be constitutional, right-wingers were ripping mad. But it didn’t take long before they recognized a motherlode of punitive action in one part of the decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts: States could opt out of the expansion of Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income Americans subsidized by the federal government and administered by the states. Roberts’ undermining of the Medicaid expansion could be seen as a stroke of evil genius on behalf of those who wish to see Obamacare fail, since it offers those who rely for their political fortunes on their constituents’ resentment of the Black president a way to punish poor people in their states, among whom people of color are over-represented.

The Medicaid expansion, entirely funded by the federal government for the first three years, and then 90 percent funded by Washington in ensuing years, is intended to cut the health-care costs incurred by state governments and hospitals when the emergency room is the only option for a low-income earner. But some 25 states, under the leadership of Republican governors—including all of the states of the old Confederacy—have turned away the federal money for no gain other than the knowledge that millions of people, many of them people of color, will be left without health care. Sifting through Census data and parsing it with the numbers of states that have declined to expand Medicaid, the New York Times‘ Sabrina Tavernese reported that, because of the number of states opting out of the full program, health-care reform under the Affordable Care Act “will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of the low-wage workers who do not have insurance, the very kinds of people that the program was intended to help.”

The people named by the Times as left behind are the very people targeted for punishment by right-wing actions on the unemployed, people who need food assistance, and people seeking to exercise their reproductive freedoms. Go figure.

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