U.S. politics these days is all too often an Alice-through-the-looking-glass absurdity.
Over the last few weeks, at least five GOP-led states — Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee — embraced rule changes to their unemployment benefits systems to allow workers who were fired for refusing to abide by their employers’ vaccine requirements to claim unemployment. Many other GOP-led states are likely to follow suit. This despite the fact that workers who choose to leave their jobs, or who are fired for cause — because, for example, they break company rules, such as failing a drug test or refusing to abide by non-disclosure agreements — aren’t usually eligible for unemployment benefits.
Hypocrisy doesn’t even begin to describe this particular policy shift, which panders to the conspiratorial, anti-vaxxer wing of the Republican Party.
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First off, what conceivable good comes of shaping public policy in a way designed to incentivize behavior that puts numerous other people at risk and threatens to overwhelm hospital systems from coast to coast?
An Associated Press analysis of COVID deaths in May of last year found that between 98 and 99 percent of these deaths were of people who weren’t vaccinated. More recently, as the Omicron variant has led to a vast wave of infections, states such as New York have detailed how hospitalization rates for the unvaccinated are 14 times higher than for those who have been fully vaccinated. In Republican counties and states, especially in the South, with higher numbers unvaccinated, hospitals have been swamped, leading to a fall-off in available beds and services for people with other ailments and diseases. Many of those states are the same ones that have needlessly undermined the health of their populations by refusing federal Affordable Care Act funds to expand Medicaid and that have, in consequence, a large percentage of their population already struggling to access even basic health care.
The Republican Party has perfected the art of political gymnastics, of doing 180-degree policy turns on a dime simply for short-term partisan advantage; it is a party that touts itself as upholding “law and order” while embracing the coup-plotting antics of Donald Trump and his murderous paramilitary henchmen; it is a party that refused to consider a Democratic nominee for the Supreme Court a year before the presidential election in 2016, but which rammed through Trump’s nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg just days before the 2020 election closed. However, even within this context, there’s something particularly bizarre about its handing out of welfare benefits specifically to the unvaccinated.
After all, this is the very same GOP that has been pillaging and plundering the safety net and social welfare programs for years — cutting benefits to the poor in order to free up money to provide tax cuts to the rich. It is the same GOP whose leaders have, over the decades, railed against “welfare queens.” It is the same GOP whose leaders have, in recent years, accused immigrants of draining benefit funds from the public system.
This is also the same GOP that has ended pandemic-era expanded unemployment and other benefits programs for the general public, saying that such benefits are discouraging workers from returning to the labor market. So, thanks to the GOP at the state level and its congressional representatives in D.C., if you choose not to work because your employer hasn’t put COVID protections in place and you’re fearful that you might bring home a deadly disease and infect an immunocompromised or elderly relative, you no longer qualify for unemployment. Similarly, if you’re a parent with young children, and your kids are repeatedly sent home from school because their classmates have contracted COVID, or you have preschoolers at home and can’t find an affordable, safe daycare center, and you choose to stop working so as to care for your children, well, thanks to the GOP, you also don’t qualify for unemployment.
It’s also the same GOP that successfully pushed to prevent the renewal of pandemic-era eviction moratoriums, thus leaving millions of economically marginal households on the precipice of eviction and homelessness as moratoriums around the country wind down in early 2022.
Philosophically, the GOP’s embrace of a select group of unvaccinated workers to qualify for more expansive benefits if they resist employer mandates flies in the face of decades of political and legal posturing by conservatives in favor of expanding the rights of employers at the cost of protections for employees.
Why now suddenly have a road to Damascus moment and realize the value of workers’ rights, but only vis-à-vis the unvaccinated? For, to be crystal clear, this is a party that doesn’t believe in workers’ rights. It is the same GOP that believes employers should have the right to fire at-will workers who try to organize into trade unions, or who otherwise express political beliefs contrary to those of company owners, and whose hand-picked conservative justices on the Supreme Court have recently ruled that union organizers do not have right of entry to go onto employers’ property to try to organize workers. It is the same GOP that embraces the Orwellian-named “right to work” movement, which hamstrings union organizing in one GOP-led state after the next, and makes it nearly impossible for low-wage workers to organize successfully to push for a living wage, for pension and health benefits or paid family leave.
For years, the GOP has criticized social benefits programs as encouraging sloth. GOP legislators have attempted — though failed — to slash food stamp benefits over the past decade. They have championed welfare-to-work policies that include making Medicaid recipients work for their health benefits (though, to be fair, both parties have drunk from this noxious trough at times — it was Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, who oversaw the gutting of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and its replacement with the far less munificent, more punitive, Temporary Aid to Needy Families). The GOP under Trump pushed the peculiarly sadistic public charge rules, designed to exclude millions of documented immigrants and their children from all parts of the social safety net, including access to emergency housing and health care assistance. This triggered a lengthy series of court cases, until, ultimately, the Biden administration rescinded the Trump-era regulatory changes.
Now, all of a sudden, the GOP has discovered the value of social programs — but only to protect its most extreme, most vaccine-resistant and most dangerous political wing. With more than 1,500 people a day currently dying in the U.S. of a disease most could be protected from simply by getting vaccinated, there’s nothing noble about encouraging anti-vaxxers to double down on their behavior. And, in a less extreme, less irrationalist political moment, it’s hard to imagine that one of the country’s two main political parties would want to so solidly align itself with such a destructive cultural and political movement. But this isn’t a calm moment; instead, it’s one increasingly defined by irrationality, rage and political gamesmanship.
In Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire Cat talks of the day becoming the night and the sky becoming the sea. And in Through the Looking Glass, when Alice tries to convince the queen that, “One can’t believe impossible things,” the contrarian monarch responds by saying, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
That, I’m afraid, is where things stand in the U.S. today. The GOP panders to the fantasies of a faction, and, in doing so, it shreds notions of scientific truth and also locks into place the most counterproductive social policies imaginable.