There are few ways in which our lives are left untouched by way of policy. The most intimate aspects of adult lives are regulated by way of government policy and therefore our level of social privileges. Heterosexism and racism are sanctioned similarly by way of institutional mechanisms used to perpetuate both sexual and racial socioeconomic hierarchies. One such mechanism is the polarization between the binary normal (white, heterosexual, cisgender) and the deviant (person of color, LGBTQ+) that has permeated the public discourse (Nicholson-Crotty, 2005). Another has been the segregation and widening disparities between socioeconomic classes that has given rise to decrepit inner-city ghettos and underrepresented blue-collar communities (mostly filled with people of color) throughout this beautiful country (Collins, 2004).
I propose that degenerative politics are a clear ploy for the age-old villain, the wealthy white man of advanced age who shakes his fists at those “meddling kids,” otherwise known as the rights activists of the times while slyly working the political system to his personal benefit. I’ll show how time and again, political actors engage in these types of binary politics where they are the good guys while the demographic they are targeting (be they African American, poor, female, and/or LGBTQ+) is bad or somehow a threat to the American way of life. They do this to win support from their constituents by uniting them against a commonly perceived threat and also to gain political capitol in terms of alliances with other political actors in the system from within which they work.
Degenerative Politics as Tools of Oppression
Those with the means to gain political capital can and often do so by ways of exploiting negative stereotypes held by those from whom they seek support, using these stereotyped groups as scapegoats for social problems. By framing the socially marginalized or politically weak groups as societal threats, policy makers are more likely to garner political support from within the legislative bodies to increase their political capital in some way. This negative and stereotypical framing can greatly increase voter support for these individuals, as these political actors are running on the backs of the marginalized in order to protect their supporters who have been convinced that these groups are dangerous to them in some way. Once these groups are perceived as deviants, then they are both feared and marginalized more than other groups. This perception is further solidified by political actors exploiting any situation which exemplifies, in their mind, the heinousness of that group in the public eye. This opens the door for an expectation of resolution for this problem by way of policy, thus leading to degenerative policies which target any demographic that has successfully been vilified by the instigating political actors. Indeed, these marginalized groups find that their political powers are largely ineffective as a result of this political targeting, thus solidifying and reinforcing their social (and therefore political) status as less than (Nicholson-Crotty, 2005). In this way, we can see politics as exclusionary or disciplinary, for all those who fall outside of society’s hegemony (Josephson, 2016).
Socioeconomic Oppression and Racism
Population-level care-taking programs are developed so that the security, health, and/or well-being of a particular group of people that needs some sort of protection is attended to in some way. In the programs’ creation, there is inherently an us (caregivers, tax payers, legislators) and them (service recipients or beneficiaries), with cultural norms determining on which side of that line people fall in terms of race, national origin, ability, indigeneity, gender, and/or sexuality. In the end, these categories that these government programs programs lump people into shapes their daily existence by being accepted as basic fundamental truths, appearing apolitical and ahistorical to the masses, (Spade, 2015) and therefore unquestioned. Welfare policy is just one example of this division between the haves and the have nots.
The racial divide was indisputably widened with the Moynihan report of 1965, which blamed the ruthless breeding of black women as one primary cause for the disenfranchisement of African Americans as not just the cause of creating more mouths to feed than their husbands could feed (if they even had husbands) but also as the catalyst of the breakdown of the “negro family,” which would result in the further disenfranchisement of their children’s development (Bensonsmith, 2005). The disparagement of the black mother in need of welfare is further reinforced among the general population in that it “teaches white women the desired heterosexual behaviors by juxtaposing them with and constructing the black welfare queen (Bensonsmith, 2005, p. 258).”
When one lives in food deserts where drugs and guns are more plentiful than fresh produce and high-quality educational resources, it is no wonder that nihilistic attitudes and perceptions of alienation from upper classes from society persist so strongly. Indeed, in circumstances such as these, citizens too frequently end up turning on one another while searching for someone to blame for their circumstances (Collins, 2004). The opening sequence of Lean on Me (Twain, 1989), a biographical movie written by a white man about an African American high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey, exemplifies this concept of impoverished people of color living in decrepit inner-city neighborhoods whose lives are full of drugs, crime, and violence. The opening credits of the movie features a popular song written by a group of young white men presenting their view of life in the ‘hood (Guns N’Roses, 1987) while the film depicts a variety of sexual and physical assaults as well as drug use by children within the high school, which is full of graffiti and flickering lights. In doing so, a variety of negative cultural stereotypes about poor people of color were very blatantly reinforced and perpetuated in what was to become one of many popular movies exploiting this demographic in order to generate profits. Collins describes this concept of racist exploitation so well that to summarize it would be a disservice:
…depicting poor and working-class African American inner-city neighborhoods as dangerous urban jungles where SUV-driving White suburbanites come to score drugs or locate prostitutes also invokes a history of racial and sexual conquest. Here sexuality is linked with danger, and understandings of both draw upon historical imagery of Africa as a continent replete with danger and peril to the White explorers and hunters who penetrated it. Just as contemporary safari tours in Africa create an imagined Africa as the “White man’s playground” and mask its economic exploitation, jungle language masks social relations of hyper-segregation that leave working-class Black communities isolated, impoverished, and dependent on a punitive welfare state and an illegal international drug trade.
Degenerative politics such as these have created and perpetuated the notion that all those who live in decent homes and attend good schools are deserving of the opportunities for higher education and jobs that pay well. The other side of this coin is a belief that may not even be conscious on the part of the individual that those living in deteriorating ghettos are undeserving of these privileges (Collins, 2004).
If marriage is such a benefit for individuals and for society, then why would conservatives reserve these benefits for mere subsects of their own society (Herdt, 2009)? It only makes sense that policies such as the heteronormative Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 was truly intended to preserve the privilege for the hegemony by denying those benefits to anyone who is not heterosexual just as interracial marriage was legislatively prohibited until the Supreme Court prevented them from continuing to do so.
Some discussion of heterosexist history is warranted here. Historically, to avoid exposure or suspicion of homosexuality, many people lived by hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity “in the closet” in order to avoid being labled by the deviant homophobic stereotypes. This secrecy inadvertently supported the erroneous mainstream belief that homosexuality and other related non-hegemonious lifestyles was relatively uncommon and therefore easy for even well-meaning individuals to view any LGBTQ+ lifestyle as being extremely deviant from societal norms. Of course, this deviancy was also supported by science and religion for centuries, so that even with the civil rights successes in the 20th century, heterosexism remains on top of the sociopolitical hierarchy, as it has been so firmly rooted within the systems of power within our and many other nations of the world (Collins, 2004).
This disenfranchisement by way of heterosexism is well-represented in the biographical movie Milk (Jinks, 2008), which follows the activist life of Harvey Milk as he comes out of the closet during a time of sanctioned police violence against suspected and actual homosexuals in the 1960s and manages to build political alliances by organizing the purchasing power of the gay community in San Francisco, eventually landing a historic win as the first openly gay elected official with a Supervisor seat for his district. During his life in politics and activism he wages political battle against such anti-gay organizations as the national Save the Children campaign - which is essentially the poster child for Herdt’s moral panic (2009) as well as degenerative politics in general - before he’s assassinated by the Supervisor for a staunchly conservative district within the same city.
Indeed, if heterosexual coupling and marriage were as natural and normal as they are purported to be based, then there would be no need to regulate them by way of policy and privilege (Collins, 2004). Instead of following their own logic, sexually conservative political actors seek to use policy to maintain their positions of power by way of the suppression of those deemed as other or less than. Just as one may not voluntarily leave prison but must “break out” if they are to start a new life elsewhere, there is an attitude among many of the privileged that when one is born into a life of disenfranchisement that they may not simply leave it behind to start a new life. Indeed, our society has ensured via degenerative policy that these marginalized demographics will remain within the proverbial prison of their oppression, only moving up the societal ladder either by chance and luck or by special and unique skill sets.
Of special note here is the topic of trans people and the politicizing of their bodies. While the United States has come a long way in terms of anti-discrimination and hate crime laws, the impacts of transphobia, homophobia and sexism on trans people has historically been left out of the public discourse, aside from the more recent debates about trans people in the military. Even within LGBTQ+ activism, the T is largely symbolic as trans folks seldom have appropriate representation within activist organizations, and if they are present, tend to lean toward the hegemony in that they tend to be white and with privilege relative to many other trans people (Spade, 2015).
In Public works such as access to appropriate healthcare or receiving identity documents that are appropriate for their gender are only just starting to be addressed by policies in some areas of the country. Safe and appropriate access within prisons, homeless shelters, public bathrooms, foster care, and more remain to be inaccessible to most and as a result these folks are at a much higher risk of physical and sexual assault as a result of outdated bureaucratic policies of social administration. Essential identity documents are a large concern as they contain gender classification that cannot be altered or subjects the individual to a breach of their private personal health information to verify whether some surgical alteration may have been completed, regardless of whether the individual ever cared to take this measure or not. Medicaid routinely denies surgeries and medications that they routinely provide to non-trans individuals for various ailments but will refuse coverage if the patient fits within the trans profile (Spade, 2015).
Where do we go from here?We know where we don’t want to be- nobody wants to live in the worlds depicted in Lean on Me or Milk. Fortunately, some societal progress has been made since if you care about the fight for equality, but we’ve learned more about what not to do. If you’re a nefarious political actor who thrives on cultural division and the maintenance of your privilege over others, you’ve been learning (at least through the Trump years) how to appear as though you’re working towards equal rights for all while simultaneously germinating the seeds of racism and heterosexism that were planted so many years ago, albeit in a more clandestine manner, using thinly veiled euphemisms such as using terms like urban when you really mean African-American while discussing crime or poverty. This sort of language sows division in a way that, when it comes down to it, is more classist than racist on its surface and thus appeals to those who may recoil in the face of overt racism while they ignorantly embrace covert racism like this in light of their ignorance to their implicit biases. In this manner, political actors who gain social and political capital by way of uniting their preferred us against their preferred them have been quite successful through the years.
These bad actors have succeeded in these areas through techniques such as supporting or shaping policy by way of their participation in writing overly reactionary and therefore narrowly scoped laws that are simply ineffective at fighting discrimination (Spade, 2015), while making it appear as though they actually care about the problems the policies are being written to fight against. Collins (2004) also reminds us that policies are ineffective if they’re not intersectional, as we have so many people who fall into more than one of the demographics most targeted by degenerative politics. Trans people in particular, Spade reminds us, are especially vulnerable due to the fact that they tend to fall into multiple of these targeted demographics simply by way of being trans, and therefore living a life subjected to a myriad of barriers not just socially but also bureaucratically, and who continue to be excluded from many antidiscrimination laws (2015).
If we are so convinced that we know where we do not want to be socially and culturally, why is it so challenging to lay out a path toward a more equal future? The answer may lie in the fact that we’ve simply never experienced a society that’s free of an us and a them. Due to the human propensity to tune out overly complex arguments (especially with the rise of the Internet and social media), our world has become more binary, with our political decisions appearing to largely be shaped by single-issue voters (i.e. pro-life vs pro-choice, pro-Christian values vs pro-marriage for all, pro-vaccine vs anti-vaccine, etc.) with a near absence of public discourse which includes the complexity of these issues.
We can clearly see that degenerative politics and the policies they create are not designed to solve problems so much as they are for regulating sex and sexuality (i.e. our social welfare benefits system, marital privilege being withheld from marginalized demographics, the disallowance of medical treatment for some while keeping it available for others) as well as to maintain privileged sexual norms (Josephson, 2016). We can see these impacts in terms of policy fallout, such as the utilization of our social welfare benefits system to culturally vilify those who need it most while heralding the hegemonious norm as the universal goal for all. We can see it in the fact that marital privilege was withheld from marginalized demographics for so long, and by the fact that discriminatory practices continue to be supported by legislation (i.e. the myriad businesses allowed to refuse to provide services for homosexual weddings). We can see this in terms of government-subsidized medical insurance refusing to pay for medications for trans people while they provide coverage for those same medications for other demographics.
The problem we face is that these political actors continue to get away with the further marginalization of so many demographics. It is my sincere hope that those of us on the side of equality can come together with a comparable level of unity and political capital that we can become the meddling kids who disrupt the Scooby-Doo style villainy of degenerative politics. Perhaps if we learned a thing or two by their successes, we could employ similar strategies to address these complex issues among the intersectional masses to create a radically honest public discourse about the ways in which narrowly-focused, short-sighted, reactionary legislation is insufficient to address the problems in our society in order to take the public policy that has marginalized a significant proportion of the people within it by withholding certain privileges and rights, and to use it instead to ensure that we can achieve a world where we are truly proud to be the America we were once touted to be, a cultural melting pot where our diversity is truly our strength, and one can be anything they wish to be with enough hard work and perseverance.
Bensonsmith, D. (2005). Jezebels, Matriarchs, and Welfare Queens: The Moynihan Report of 1965 and the Social Construction of African-American Women in Welfare Policy. In A. &. Schneider, Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions and Public Policy (pp. 223-242). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Collins, P. (2004). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge.
Guns N' Roses (1987). Welcome to the Jungle [Recorded by G. N. Roses]. Santa Monica, CA, USA: M. Clink.
Herdt, G. (2009). Gay Marriage: The Panic and the Right. In G. Herdt, Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights (p. chapter 5). New York, NY: University Press.
Josephson, J. (2016). Rethinking Sexual Citizenship. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Nicholson-Crotty, S. &. (2005). From Perception to Public Policy: Translating Social Constructions into Policy Designs. In A. &. Schneider, Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions and Public Policy (pp. 223-242). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Schneider, A. &. (2005). Deserving and Entitled: Social Constructions and Public Policy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Spade, D. (2015). Normal Life: Administrative Vioelnce, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Twain, N. (Producer), & Avildsen, J. (Director). (1989). Lean on Me [Motion Picture].