Why “Redistribution” is a Dirty Word to Republicans

Sorry, I couldn’t resist this bit of right wing propaganda. I wish this was an indication that they’re totally out of touch, but, alas, no. In fact, they’re just about in touch with control of the presidency and both houses of Congress.

“Redistributionist,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a term coined in 1961 specifically to refer to one who believes in or advocates a welfare state. If that resource is accurate, then being a redistributionist means being exactly the sort of person who conservatives have no use for.

But, the question remains, why does the term seem to have special power when applied to President Obama?

Neither Reagan nor Clinton nor the Bushes were labeled redistributionists to their political detriment. Yet each promised tax cuts to one or another sector of the public, then caved in to popular support for redistributionist programs like Medicaid, Medicare, welfare, and food stamps, digging holes elsewhere in our economy for future presidents to fill in order to cut taxes while continuing, at varying levels, to redistribute wealth to the poor (and finance the military).

Today, in The Nation, Gary Younge wrote a piece called What’s Race Got To Do With It? that offers an answer to my question.

In the article, Younge explains the continuing relevance of race and racism in national politics, writing,

…race is about power, and it is through power that resources are distributed. Race will disappear as an issue when racism disappears as a material force. In the meantime, it will also be a tool to leverage resentment. For example, GOP ads pitting Medicare (which Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan wants to cut anyway) against healthcare reform claim that the hard-earned benefits of working people will be frittered away on “a massive new government program that is not for you.” Such is the nature of demographics and poverty in this country that more than three-quarters of Medicare recipients are white, while more than half of those without health insurance are not. Thus the specter of racialized redistribution is invoked without being explicitly articulated.

This is the racist appeal of the GOP claim that Obama is a redistributionist.  It’s a coded racist message that fits in very nicely with Romney’s famous behind-closed-doors comments indicating his belief that 47% of the people will vote for Obama because they have a victim mindset and won’t “take personal responsibility or care for their lives.”

Even within the suffocatingly narrow confines of the debate over entitlement programs being waged in this year’s presidential election, Republican’s have found a way to drive a racial wedge, suggesting that resources “earned” by our (white) elderly is being challenged by the man Newt Gingrich indelicately referred to as “the food stamps president.” And they are doing it by telling a lie that President Obama is stealing more than $700 billion from Medicare to finance the Affordable Care Act. In effect, taking money from a program that mostly serves whites and using it to finance a program that will mostly serve people of color.

Putting to one side the false notion that the only people served by either program are direct recipients for a moment, this lie is a play on race. It is an appeal to fear, not just that Medicare benefits to the elderly will be cut, but that this is happening because your Black president is choosing non-white people’s needs over your own at a time when “those people” are growing larger in number, not to mention more addicted to entitlements, everyday.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

3 replies on “Why “Redistribution” is a Dirty Word to Republicans”

I think also the term “redistribution of wealth” is being used to deliberately cloud in people’s minds what is going on when we are talking about any kind of collective pooling of resources. It kind of conjures up this idea that somebody wealthy is deliberately being made poor through the system, and somebody poor is being made wealthy through this same system. I don’t think that really happens, although I’m sure someone could argue with me on that. All collective resources, whether that is taxes or insurance pools, do end up being redistributed to somebody besides the payer at some point. That’s how collective systems work, and a lot of us (most of us) benefit from collective resources of some sort, whether we feel comfortable admitting that or not.

That’s an interesting definition of the word (redistributionist) you’ve quoted. Is everyone who is benefiting from pooled government resources poor? I’ve heard people argue that indeed there is a big transfer of wealth in this country, but it’s not necessarily the direction people think its going (like with some of the bank/Wall Street bailouts in 2008; or the “corporate welfare” that occurs). Not everyone pays income or property tax, but just about everybody pays sales tax (and some states have car taxes). And that money is being used for all kinds of government programs, including ones that assist people (and corporations) who do have some amassed wealth already. That’s also a redistribution, technically. Seems kind of just a manipulation of terms, narrowing the definitions of some pretty broad terms to further a dominate narrative around race.

So… *our* “sense of entitlement” bothers *them* not because we actually want more than our “due,” but rather because we dare to ask for the same consideration and back room benefits that pave the tributaries of their pervasive, race-paved Easy Street of an existence… It appears to be rather like being born with a silver shoe horn in one’s baby bootie. “In the halfway house where I live,” it is not the ‘people of color’ who have the luxury of sitting around, smoking all day, in their pajamas, unless you count the ones “on oxygen,” or the ones who finally lost their battle (or love affair) with Crack. Wow. I guess “love” has no greater name…

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