Three Threats: 1. Populist Backlash

Danger sign, white block letters inside horizontal red oval, surrounded by black rectangular background

From my July 6, 2016 blog post:

“Over the next few days, I plan on writing a series of posts about what I believe to be three of the most dangerous and imminent threats to disabled people in America today. By "threats" I don't mean garden-variety injustices, or everyday ableism ... even though some days they seem to eat away at our souls. I'm talking about specific measures or trends that threaten our actual survival. And by "survival," I mean our economic viability, our physical and psychological independence, and our lives and safety.”


Let's start with Populist Backlash.

In this particular election year, it seems right to start with Populist Backlash. Since the term is made up of two distinct words, I’ll start by trying to define them.

Stock photo of a middle aged white bald man with beard and mustache, looking very angry, pointing an accusing finger at the viewer

“Backlash” is a reaction against recent social changes. It is inherently conservative, (Keep things the way they are!), and often reactionary, (Go back to the way things were!). Some people join in backlash because they have always opposed social change. Others get revved up when they feel that social change has “gone too far,” or when social change previously thought to be essentially harmless suddenly seems to threaten the majority’s status and equilibrium.

The word “Populist” implies a movement coming from the “lower” levels of society, rather than elites. Populism can be positive or negative, but in the American political context the term carries a negative connotation, because so much American “populism” has included explicit racism, anti-semitism, and other kinds of scapegoating … blaming other low-status groups for your problems instead of the systems and leaders who are actually responsible.

So, “Populist Backlash” is a movement against resented social change, by people who are themselves of relatively low status, who suffer real or perceived losses of status and privilege, and who vent their frustrations on other low-status or minority groups. It’s important to note, too, that while Populist Backlash doesn’t come from elites, it is very often co-opted and used by elites for their own purposes.

How does this relate to disabled people?

Disabled people are more visible, accommodated, and assertive in society than they were decades ago. Fewer of us live in institutions. Still too many do, but far fewer than used to. You see disabled people more often in everyday life, where we used to be almost invisible. Disability issues still don't get the attention they should, but accessibility, inclusion, and simple non-discrimination are at least recognized and more or less permanent priorities. Disabled people have over the last 30-40 years gone from virtual nonentities in society, dealt with only privately by their families and physicians, to permanent, named members of the broader community. That is a big change, even though we sometimes forget it. And how we view ourselves from the inside is different from how others see us.

From the outside, it can appear that disabled people are entitled to many benefits, privileges, and social sympathies that other underprivileged people can’t seem to get for themselves. People are just minimally "aware" enough to know that there are now more laws and programs designed to meet the specific needs of disabled people. Meanwhile there are fewer such arrangements than there used to be to help people who have other kinds of problems, like under-employment, low income, and discrimination. While disabled people have these problems, too, we at least have programs that are supposed to help us with those things. Non-disabled people mostly don't. They used to, but remember that in the United States, generic "welfare" has been mostly dismantled, shattered into dozens of tiny, narrowly targeted programs that are hard to qualify for and full of holes.

We disabled people know, of course, that even our own targeted programs look far better on paper than they do in real life. Our civil rights laws lack practical teeth. Benefits are hard to get and even harder to maintain with any assurance. The better service models we've developed are almost all vastly under-funded and, therefore, minimally and randomly implemented. But this doesn't matter to people who don't know any of this. To them, it looks like we get everything and they get nothing, even though they feel like they have just as many problems and barriers to deal with, if not more. We even get our own damned parking spaces!

Frustration about these supposedly unearned advantages, coupled with the dark allure of disobeying the dictates of “Political Correctness” can lead people to be shockingly nasty and abusive towards people with disabilities. Actually fighting for better policies to address inequality requires coherent, carefully-tended ideologies and lots of wonky knowledge. Lashing out at your "disabled" neighbor who gets a monthly government check for "doing nothing" is easy. Especially if they look and talk weird. Especially when they, (we), do nothing but complain about not having any power or support.

And now, we have savvy politicians telling people that lashing out in this way isn't impolite. It's not gross or hateful. No! It's honest, brave, admirably non-conformist!

So what? This kind of naked hatefulness against disabled people isn't all that common. Disabled people are far from the favorite scapegoat for Populist Backlash. Immigrants, black people, LGBTQ people, and women seem to share that dubious honor. Is this really a big enough problem to be a danger, not just an annoyance or personal trauma? For one thing, lots of disabled people are also black, gay, immigrants, and / or women. So, for many of us, ableism is just one of a half dozen or more active angles of attack we experience every single day. Ableism may not be the worst, but it doesn't have to be.

The other problem is that this close, personal resentment and unleashing of anger can very quickly lead to harmful policies that would affect far more than our feelings. Scapegoating disabled people, even only occasionally, can jump in a second from purely social and rhetorical, to the very concrete. Especially during an election year ... especially THIS election year ... we need to watch out for hate becoming proposals. We need to be wary of cuts to disability benefits or narrowing of eligibility. We need to be on the lookout for attempts to make the ADA even weaker than it already is. We need to worry that giving people permission to use unthinkable language about disability will help unleash unthinkable policies that will harm disabled people.

This happened in the United Kingdom when budget cuts targeted to disabled people were made politically feasible, even politically attractive, partly by amped-up anger at “benefits scroungers.” As a bonus, political validation of the idea may have, in turn, fueled more hate, setting up a frightening, destructive cycle. It hasn't really happened here yet, but it could.

Where does this backlash come from, and why?

Again, the Populist Backlash I am talking about generally comes from poor and working class people, not primarily from so-called elites. Certain elites will harness it, and they are usually the ones to channel resentment into action, but when they do, they are still mainly relying on non-elite sentiment. Most elites are too polite, or too politic, to partake directly.

Although Populist Backlash against disabled people is almost completely based on misinformation and prejudice, it is weaponized by actual suffering, both emotional and material. As already noted, non-elites feel screwed, and in many ways they are. The problem is that it's easier, somehow, to blame other screwed people who look, speak, and act differently, and who are close at hand, than to blame murky, distant corporations, politicians, and obscure policy structures.

A lot of things feed into Populist Backlash, including basic ableism, but it also relies on the idea of scarcity. It's the idea ... the unquestioned assumption really ... that all good things in society are in short supply. When one group "gets," others necessarily "lose." If disabled people are better off, someone else may be suffering. Maybe it's me.

At the moment, Populist Backlash is more of a warning sign than a danger. But we should absolutely view it as a very serious warning sign of a very real danger, not just to our identity or peace of mind, but to our actual lives.

Next in this series: Re-Institutionalization.