Of all the various image problems that modern conservatism has, it’s arguable that the one that hurts them the most with the general public is the perception that conservatives, to be blunt, are straight up mean. It’s a well-earned reputation, as we’re reminded when Sarah Palin sneers, “How's that hopey, changey stuff working out?” or groups of angry right wingers picket groups of children fleeing gang violence in Central America. This image problem caused George W. Bush to run on a platform of “compassionate conservatism”, which was quickly forgotten when the war hammers came out.
But they know it’s a problem. Which is one reason that a common habit on the right is to justify attacks on various groups of people by claiming that you’re actually trying to help them. “Sure, this may look like it’s an attempt to strip someone of basic human rights or continue their needless suffering, but I swear, I’m just trying to help!” is a common pose for conservatives. Here’s four examples of groups of people conservative claim they’re trying to help, but who they are in fact trying to hurt.
1) Immigrant children. When the surge of children fleeing violence in Central America by escaping to the United States first started to garner national attention, right wing reaction was extremely ugly, with politicians accusing the migrants of spreading disease and being rapists. This, understandably, caused many people to wonder what the hell is wrong with them that they would speak of traumatized children this way, so now some of the worst offenders are trying a different tactic: Trying to argue that they want to send the kids back home post-haste out of compassion.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, who had been all about rape scare-mongering, has now decided that she’s trying to protect them from Obama’s supposedly nefarious plans. She fretted that the kids will go into the foster care system which will leave them subject to “our government to do medical experimentation” because “A little kid can't say 'no' if they're a ward of the state.”
Rep. Steve King was even more nonsensical in his claims of concern for child migrants, saying that migrant families are being tempted by Obama to subject their daughters to sexual abuse and worse, birth control pills. “This is a man-caused disaster, and the man that caused it is Barack Obama, with his DACA policies and his Morton memos, and the advertisement that has been such a huge magnet that have caused these families to give their daughters birth control pills and send them down a rape path all the way through Mexico, and it’s a death path on the death train.”
2) Women who want abortions. One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, and after nearly four decades of accusing these women of murder, the anti-choice movement has finally wised up to how ineffective that strategy really is. So now the game plan is pretending that abortion needs to be banned to protect women from those evil abortion doctors, who are assumed to be tricking women somehow into getting abortions.
Gov. Rick Perry justified Texas’s omnibus abortion bill that will shut down all but six clinics in the state by saying, “Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn.” During Senate testimony for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would ban states from creating extra regulations for abortion that aren’t applied to similar medical procedures, Rep. Marsha Blackburn complained, “In my opinion it would more accurately be titled the ‘Removal of Existing Protections and Safety Measures for Women Undergoing Abortion Act.’” Rep. Diane Black falsely claimed that abortion causes breast cancer, depression, and suicide, and presumably needs to be regulated out of existence.
It’s all transparently dishonest. The evidence is overwhelming that making legal abortion unavailable leads to higher rates of injury and death in women, because they seek illegal abortions. Abortion bans are even correlated with higher rates of abortion, suggesting the only real purpose in making legal abortion harder to get is to punish women by putting them at higher risks for injury from abortion.
3) Poor people. Decades of evidence shows that the best way to help relieve poverty is to give poor people money and health care, full stop. The best programs for relieving poverty are Social Security, EITC, and SNAP, not just in the short term, but in the long term, where they are associated with higher rates of employment and higher earnings for children who get this assistance when they become adults. Medicaid is associated with lifelong health benefits for children whose mothers had it during pregnancy.
Rep. Paul Ryan has a lifelong dream of taking all that away and finding whatever means he can to reduce the amount of assistance people get, and he’s always coming up with new plans that, no matter how complex they are, are always geared towards cutting the amount of aid you can receive. But his excuse for this is always that he’s trying to save people from poverty. His latest plan is a money-sucking monstrosity that would likely end up redirecting tons of the money that was going to actual poor people to “case workers” who would create a “life plan” for people in poverty, and of course punish them by slashing benefits if they can’t meet the goals laid out. Yes, even if that means that they can’t get a job because of high unemployment. Ryan says it’s about creating a “customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty.”
But that’s clearly just disingenuous because it assumes, incorrectly, that people receiving benefits are unambitious and lifelong dependents. In reality, most food stamp users use it as a stopgap as they try to get new jobs and other forms of assistance, like EITC, already are associated with higher levels of successful employment. “Life plans” is likely just a cover story to make it easier to pull people off welfare by claiming that they didn’t meet goals that are set arbitrarily.
4) The uninsured. While the Affordable Care Act was a wide-ranging bill that beefed up the rights of people who are already insured, what really teed Republicans off were the parts of the bill that were geared towards getting insurance to currently uninsured people, such as the Medicaid expansion, health care subsidies, and the creation of insurance exchanges to help uninsured people buy insurance. But while you’ll occasionally see conservatives show their true face as they celebrate the possibility of cutting the newly insured from the rolls, the official line the right is taking is that they’re trying to help the uninsured.
This takes two basic forms, both completely disingenuous: 1) Arguing that you’re better off not having insurance at all or 2) arguing that affordable insurance was easier to get in the days prior to Obamacare. The first strategy is one preferred by Koch-brothers funded Generation Opportunity, which works to try to convince young people to “opt out” of the insurance system. Their goal is to collapse Obamacare by keeping young people off the insurance rolls, driving up insurance costs. They claim to support young people buying insurance outside of Obamacare, but most of their messaging much more strongly suggests that the best option for young people is not to have insurance at all. That this “advice” is offered in bad faith really should need no further explanation.
The second strategy was best epitomized by the series of sob stories of people who got their insurance plans cancelled for not meeting Obamacare minimum standards and letters from their insurance companies offering staggeringly expensive alternatives. These stories implied that Obamacare was going to cause spiraling costs, but they left out a couple of key details, namely that the plans that were getting canceled were terrible plans that cheated customers out of health care and that the plans available on the exchanges were generally cheaper than the ones that insurance companies were offering customers directly. Many to most of the people in the sob stories were going to save money, it seems, under Obamacare.
Taken together, the tendency of conservatives to claim to be helping the people that they’re actually hurting suggests one thing: If Republican politicians start pulling faces and saying that they’re just here to help you, your smartest move is to watch your back.