Food stamps are the new dog whistle – and yes, it’s all Reagan’s fault!

Food stamps are the new dog whistle – and yes, it’s all Reagan’s fault!

[Ed. – I don’t think actual dogs are confused enough to hear this whistle.]

Just last week, House Speaker John Boehner warned that “states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps,” and he implored his colleagues “to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.” Cheating and fraud constitute stock themes in the conservative assault on food stamps — tropes applied indiscriminately to both recipients and government. And therein lies a clue to the real target.

To see the actual agenda clearly, though, it helps to reach back to Ronald Reagan, for he perfected today’s conservative assault on food stamps.

Reagan frequently stumped by sympathizing with the anger of voters waiting in line to buy hamburger, while some young fellow ahead of them used food stamps to buy a T-bone steak. With this tale, Reagan invoked the stereotype of the welfare recipient who abuses government benefits to live in luxury (Reagan’s other version: welfare queens). …

Going to the racial dimensions of these hackneyed fictions, when Reagan initially told the T-bone steak story, he identified the food stamp abuser as a young “buck,” a term then commonly used among Southern whites to refer to a strong black man. This veered dangerously toward open racism, and in any event proved unnecessary. Even after Reagan dropped that term from future renditions, the racial element continued just below the surface, with welfare recipients implicitly colored black.

But this was not a simple plot to demonize minorities. Rather, Reagan had another scapegoat in mind, and here we come to the heart of dog-whistle politics. Ostensibly, even more than grasping minorities, the greatest enemy of the middle class was liberal government. After all, it was government that was reaching into taxpayer’s pockets and wasting their hard-earned dollars.

By “darkening” government itself, Reagan provided the kindling for a taxpayer revolt that ostensibly would cut off funds to the lazy and irresponsible — but that in fact generated enormous windfalls for the very rich.

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