The source of this analogy is generally understood to be George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics who wrote the book “Moral Politics” in 1996. This book postulated that Americans tend to comprehend governance through the metaphor of the family, with conservatives preferring a “Strict Father morality” – which values discipline, hard work, and self-reliance – and liberals having a “Nurturant Parent morality” in which people are better off by helping each other.
Aside from the fact that interpreting “nurturant” as “Mommy” seems more than a bit sexist, the analogy has endured, with Republicans especially loving the hunky manliness of being seen as “Daddy.”
But what if Daddy is a deadbeat?
It’s been widely reported that some of the hardest hit by the budget cuts will be children:
Deadbeat dads are famous for withholding financial support from children. So Republicans seem to fit the mold here.
Of course, Republicans are going to deny this. Conservatives are going to claim the cuts aren’t that big of a deal – or are even actually a good thing. But Democrats need to call them out for their negligence and stop playing the role of the “ineffectual mom” who fails to confront the harm being done to children.
Deadbeat Dad – Who, Me?
A cornerstone of being a deadbeat dad is to deny you’re one.
That was all too apparent during the sequester negotiations as Republicans stretched credibility to amazing limits in their denials of deadbeatism.
Republicans continued to withhold financial support for the nation’s children by claiming, bizarrely, that any government spending on children now – when they actually need services for their proper development – somehow robs them of their future.
Anyone with at least a casual knowledge of the research on the benefits of early childhood education knows that denying children access to that opportunity will likely have more detrimental impact on their future than any increase in the federal debt that might result from providing those services.
In one amazing feat of deflection, Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama (tip to deadbeat dads: always get a female to speak for you) blamed Obama for the cuts while making the case that the sequester should still go through with different, “more responsible” cuts.
Blaming cuts to kids on “Mommy” Obama is more than a stretch. The origins of sequestration, as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum explained, can be traced to Ronald Reagan, who ironically, may have also coined the term “deadbeat dad.”
And while it’s true that the Obama administration put sequestration on the table during the legendary Grand Bargain negotiations, Republican leaders in the House, notably Reps. Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, made sequestration the default by refusing any other reasonable option.
So Republican denials of any responsibility for the sequester’s impact on children are acutely hollow. As my colleague Richard Eskow observed, “Congress did this.” And with Republicans controlling the House, where appropriations in Congress start, they own it.
The Showy Spend
Another trait that truly unmasks deadbeatedness is the father who withholds money for children’s basic needs while spending on extravagances that are mostly about inflating his own Daddy image.
Like a deadbeat dad who splurges on a trip with his kid to Disneyworld but won’t fork over for groceries and the college fund, Republicans who were gutting federal spending for children’s healthcare and education recently introduced the tough-sounding Protect America’s Schools Act, which would provide $30 million to put armed guards in schools.
Don’t do this, said a panel of experts testifying at a House committee meeting last week.
Rather than putting more armed cops in schools, the panelists pleaded for “more counselors, better communication between adults on campus and students, and additional, thoughtful emergency planning.”
Although turning public schools into armed lockdown units sounds like the fatherly thing to do, panelist David Osher, a “school climate guru” called the idea “very dangerous,” and said, “The real challenge in schools is not the low-incidence and very traumatic events . . . [but] low-level aggression that takes place persistently.”
Backing up Osher’s assertion was the testimony of a school counselor in southern California, Vincent Pompei, who said, “Mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School make headlines, but they are rare. Students are far more likely to encounter gang violence, bullying, and harassment in everyday life.”
He called for “counseling, support, and other mental-health services” while noting, “Caseloads have grown so much that counselors only have time to put out fires – when we should be preventing fires from igniting in the first place.”
But the “stern Daddy party” prefers a showy spend on guns and cops instead.
It’s For Their Own Good
Another hallmark of deadbeatism is to claim that withholding financial support is either not such a big deal or even a good thing – to “toughen the kid up,” so to speak.
This inclination is rampant among conservatives in their reaction to the sequester cuts. In an article in USA Today, a spokesperson from a conservative belief tank pooh-poohed the cuts as “pretty small.” And an operative from the libertarian Cato Institute concluded the cuts to schools not only won’t have a “devastating” effect but would thin the herd of “too many public school employees.”
Even more extreme, if that’s possible, are those who’ve said the warnings about school cuts due to the sequester are a “Chicken Little moment” because schools have already gotten their federal cash.
What these serial withholders don’t acknowledge is that public schools have already been the victims of massive budget cuts. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has pointed out:
States have made steep cuts to education funding since the start of the recession and, in many states, those cuts deepened over the last year. Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding in the 2012-13 school year than they did last year in 26 states, and in 35 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels – often far below.
Reflecting this reality, half of school principals responding to a nationwide survey stated that their school budgets had been slashed in the past year, and 35 percent reported flat spending.
School budget cuts since the economic crisis began have led to massive losses in teachers’ jobs already. Way back at the beginning of the school year, Huffington Post’s education journalist Joy Resmovits reported that over 300,000 teachers had lost their jobs nationwide, leading to a 4.6 percent increase in the average student-teacher ratio. These layoffs have certainly played a role in the slow growth in employment for several years.
So schools are already on a financial cliff and are extremely vulnerable to toppling over the edge.
Also, anyone claiming that cuts from the sequester won’t have immediate impacts on schools simply doesn’t understand the nature of the cuts or how school budgets are made.
Reporters at Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog looked at the cuts and concluded that 1,200 districts nationwide – which have a lot of Native American students, students whose parents work on military bases, or have federal land near the district – “would get hit fairly soon.” Many of these districts have already prepared for the hits, but that hardly softens the blow.
Furthermore, news of the sequester cuts comes at a time when school boards and administrators across the country are going into budget-planning mode, when they have to propose their spending levels for the next school year to state officials who control how federal dollars are allocated to schools. Anyone who has observed the budget planning process for any length of time knows that any hint of funding cutbacks in the future gets reflected immediately in current school budgets, because local school officials have to show they are living within their means to obtain future funds.
So any deadbeatist downplaying of the magnitude and immediacy of the cuts is generally unfounded.
How To Respond To Deadbeat Dads
The only way to respond to deadbeat dads is to identify them when you see them.
Now there are Republicans who quite literally are deadbeat dads.
But more importantly, Democrats need to speak out more forcefully in opposition to deadbeat ideology.
Republicans actually believe that cutting government spending on children is the responsible thing to do. Bringing up George Lakoff again, who happened to be observing the family drama of the sequester negotiations from the Huffington Post, “Ultra-conservatives believe that the sequester is moral, that it is the right thing to do.”
Because Republicans have the “moral sense” of a stern father who thinks “liberty is maximal personal responsibility” and providing for the common good is “an immoral imposition on their liberty,” cutting government is always the right thing to do in their minds – even when it harms children.
There are troubling signals coming from prominent Democrats that they could be caving to the deadbeat Dads.
Too many bipartisan-minded Democrats are enamored with the mistaken Bowles-Simpson budget plan that would shackle the country with unreasonable spending constraints.
Analysts at the Economic Policy Institute looked at the Bowles-Simpson plan and observed that although the proposal “doesn’t explicitly cut items like education, it prescribes funding levels that make it “pretty much impossible” not to make “drastic cuts” to all public investments, including education.
Too many Democrats adhere to the false belief that what the nation’s children need are more exposure to force and weaponry rather than schools that are adequately equipped and staffed to address safety concerns, mental and physical health problems, bullying and aggression, and pervasive violence that invades from surrounding neighborhoods.
When Democrats don’t openly and vehemently oppose the deadbeat Dad agenda, they are refusing to fulfill their obligation to be a nurturing overseer of the nation’s youngest citizens. When Democrats compromise on spending for false priorities that don’t really benefit children, they are colluding with deadbeat ideology.
Democrats should know that more education cuts are not the way to go. Instead, the federal government must help states and communities rehire teachers and rebuild schools, which would do a lot to rebuild our economy and increase employment levels. This is the proper role of a responsible father: creating a solid financial future for all kids.
If the American “family” is going to ever work in favor of children, we certainly don’t need a deadbeat Dad in charge. But also we need a more effective “Mom” who will speak up and act for the children’s sake.
Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and owner of a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC. He has written extensively about public education policy and edits the online publication Education Opportunity Network. This has been reposted from the Campaign for America’s Future.