Iowa's Tea Party disaster: Joni Ernst's shocking ideas about the welfare state

How the wingnut potentially on the verge of joining the Senate uses shoddy history to justify her radical beliefs

Published October 17, 2014 6:01PM (EDT)

Joni Ernst                          (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Joni Ernst (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

In Iowa, like everywhere else in the country right now (except Ohio), Democrats are falling behind the GOP in key races for reasons that have little to do with the candidates and everything to do with the midterm electorate's likely demographic composition. In plain English, that means that state Sen. Joni Ernst is holding a small but consistent polling edge over Rep. Bruce Braley because the people who will vote in November will likely be disproportionately conservative, old and white.

I doubt that the Democrats' new attempt to sink Ernst by circulating a 2013 audio recording in which she says some pretty wingnutty stuff — "we have fostereda generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything," for example — is going to have an impact on the polls. Believing the last 70 or so years of the 20th century to have been a huge mistake certainly isn't a mainstream position, but Ernst's skill at camouflaging anti-government radicalism as harmless "kids these days" nostalgia will make it hard for Dems to use to their advantage.

Nevertheless, whatever Ernst's disquisition on government dependency lacks as material for an attack ad is more than compensated for through its value as a window into the potential U.S. senator's mind. And because Ernst, like her fellow GOP Senate candidates Rep. Tom Cotton and Rep. Cory Gardner, is by every indication an unwavering adherent of Tea Party orthodoxy, it's reasonable to think that her version of American history is shared by most of the rest of her comrades in arms.

Ernst says things have gone wrong during "the years since [she] was a small girl," which doesn't make sense considering she's only 44 and thus has spent most of her life in what most people regard as a conservative era. (She was only 10 when Ronald Reagan was elected, for Gipper's sake.) But let's assume she was intending to make the standard libertarian argument, embraced so enthusiastically a few years ago by Glenn Beck,  that the U.S. has been headed for Big Government tyranny ever since the Progressive movement's heyday in the early years of the 20th century.

It's an elegantly simple narrative, and it plays into the learned or possibly innate desire so many people have to view the past as the Garden of Eden and themselves as humanity's guide and redeemer. But from the standpoint of historical fact, Ernst's version of the 1900s is a wreck.

But before we get to all that, let's let Ernst explain the End of America in her own words, via Radio Iowa:

What we have to do a better job of is educating not only Iowans, but the American people that they can be self-sufficient. They don’t have to rely on the government to be the do-all, end-all for everything they need and desire, and that’s what we have fostered, is really a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them. It’s going to take a lot of education to get people out of that. It’s going to be very painful and we know that. So do we have the intestinal fortitude to do that?

In this first bloc of text, Ernst is putting her best euphemisms to work in order to spin the gutting or annihilation of most government services as an "educational" moment during which the public's "very painful" initial shock of losing access to health care, unemployment insurance, disability insurance or even Social Security will eventually give way to the liberating knowledge that "they can be self-sufficient." The question, Ernst argues, is not whether this slash-and-burn approach is necessary. It's not even whether "self-sufficiency" will be enough to fill the void left by the suddenly libertarian state.

The question is whether conservatives enact that suffering without buckling to the people's cries, Ernst says. "[D]o we have the intestinal fortitude to do that?"

Stripped of Ernst's diplomatic gloss, that sounds like a desperate and even cruel policy vision. That's because most of us don't carry the same assumptions about America's past as she does (oh, and also because it totally is). While most Americans are reflexive optimists — in the sense that they believe to some degree in the inevitability of social and material progress, that things are getting better all the time — Ernst looks back at the road just traveled and sees a wasteland:

[W]e rely on government for absolutely everything. And in the years since I was a small girl up until now into my adulthood with children of my own, we have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do. They used to have wonderful food pantries. They used to provide clothing for those that really needed it. But we have gotten away from that. Now we’re at a point where the government will just give away anything.

Again, Ernst mixes nostalgia with revisionist history, going so far as to not only imply the American welfare state has gotten too big but that it was never needed in the first place. Churches and "private organizations," Ernst claims, "used to have wonderful food pantries" and "used to provide clothing for those that really needed it" (emphasis mine). Besides a few whiners who didn't really need new clothing or food, Ernst leaves us to conclude, American society in the 19th century (or earlier; who knows) took care of everyone who needed caring. The welfare state isn't a response to demand; it's the result of a diktat from above.

To be clear, Ernst is far from the only person on the right to see U.S. history this way. On the contrary, the libertarian Garden of Eden narrative isn't just a favorite of crank billionaires and disgraced reactionaries, but instead has even found purchase among the ostensibly respectable conservative elite. And just like the 9/11 Truth movement or the anti-vaccine panic, believers in our secret utopian and libertarian past are wholly undeterred by historical fact.

Two, in particular, have been tossed Ernst and company's way, but have yet to make any discernible mark: 1. Even by their own standards, the past is no refuge; contrary to the myth, the U.S. economy before the welfare state was far more regulated and far less laissez faire than many conservatives want to believe or are willing to admit. And 2. Social insurance programs predated the 20th century (going back as far as the years following the Civil War, in fact) and mostly went on to be launched or expanded because years and years of social unrest and experience showed reformers private charity couldn't do the trick.

As the Roosevelt Institute's Mike Konczal explained in an essay for Democracy last year, charity failed to meet demand for a few reasons; it wasn't accessible in many regions, and it was often ethnically segregated and extremely patriarchal. Most importantly, though, the ad hoc system of private charity Ernst is so sure was always there for those who really needed it was completely ill-suited to help people when they needed it most — in the aftermath of financial crises and, of course, the Great Depression, which created a tidal wave of suffering that could only be kept from turning more dangerous through government intervention.

Living as we do during a time when the memory of financial collapse is fresh and the casualties of the Great Recession are still littering our economy's streets, many of us contrast the results of the 1930s and those of our immediate post-recession years and see a clear vindication of the ways government has grown since the Gilded Age. Joni Ernst, on the other hand, sees a long and grim slide into dependence and degradation. If Iowa voters want to endorse her revisionist history, that's certainly their right. You just hope they truly understand who they're poised to elect as the next senator from their state.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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