In many ways, it’s a little strange that US Senator Joe McCarthy is still so widely known today. American politics hasn’t exactly been bereft of fire and brimstone individuals over the years. How many of the current Tea Party crowd will be remembered 50 years from now? Not many I suspect. But the legend of McCarthy has endured because he represents a kind of bogeyman when we think about the politics of fear. He is the archetypal example of how fear can be used to launch a fledgling political career. But he’s also a lesson in how fear invariably destroys those who wield it.
What McCarthy did so successfully up until 1954, when he spectacularly fell from grace, was exploit the public fear of communism and cultivate the impression that American public life was riddled with Communists. Of course, there were some committed Communists in America – that wasn’t in question – but McCarthy took a handful of individuals and turned them into an army to convince America there were reds under the bed.
These days politicians are much subtler than McCarthy – well, the successful ones are anyway. But beneath the more pleasing veneer, the same devices are still being used to scare the electorate. The Conservatives’ tactics to sell welfare reform are a good case in point. The Government clearly has no faith in its own ability to explain the reasons for the seismic cuts it is busy implementing, so it is relying instead on scaring the electorate into believing that unemployed people are addicted to benefits and unwilling to work and that disabled people are faking it.
This is not exactly unsurprising. The Conservatives enmity towards the welfare system is well established. But even by its own standards, the scrounger narrative has been particularly vehement in the past twelve months, because it has to be. David Cameron knows that unless he can terrify the public into believing they are under siege from an army of the detritus of society, they will not swallow the grotesque medicine he’s peddling.
But, that’s not to say he won’t be successful. After all, he’s certainly got much of the media convinced. Last year, for example, John Humphrys presented a show on BBC2 called The Future State of Welfare. In it he went back to the place of his birth – Slott, in Cardiff – and concluded that the high percentage of people living on benefits in the area was down to the “perverse incentives” of the benefits system. Nothing to do with a chronic lack of jobs then (incidentally, the programme was very effectively torn to shreds by Declan Gaffney).
As John Perry has noted, if someone like Humphrys presents the scrounger narrative as accepted political consensus, it becomes harder for politicians to challenge this. But when asked, the public regularly tells pollsters of its broad support for the welfare system, which leads to:
“the absurd position of the public broadly supporting current (pre-cuts) welfare policy, but the press finding this inconvenient and presenting its own ‘popular’ line.”
Frustratingly for the Conservatives the public seems very reluctant to envision the United Kingdom without its welfare system. What they don’t like is the idea that the system is being abused – and Cameron is using the latter to try and erode the former. It’s his reds under the bed moment.
At the Senate hearings of 1954, a young Boston lawyer called Joseph Welch looked Senator McCarthy in the eye and said:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”
It was the end for McCarthy. One wonders whether a similar moment is in the offing for Cameron.