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Americans are turning against the GOP's austerity gospel

Americans of all political stripes are beginning to reject the GOP's tradition of funneling money to the wealthy at less powerful people's expense.


In the Christian prosperity gospel, pastors pitch parishioners on the idea that God wants them to be rich, and submitting to capitalism will make them so.

As Vox described it in 2017, prosperity gospel is “an umbrella term for a group of ideas — popular among charismatic preachers in the evangelical tradition — that equate Christian faith with material, and particularly financial, success.”

You know the type. Joel Osteen. Creflo Dollar. Preachers who stand before their flock pitching materialism as God’s virtue, and telling them to buy into that belief system if they want riches for themselves. 

But I see the conservative movement as bound together by a somewhat different religion: the austerity gospel. This is the stubborn, conservative philosophy that low levels of spending are what’s best for the American economy. And I should clarify: When Republicans say this, they mean low levels of spending on social programs … but high spending levels on things rich conservatives enjoy, like tax cuts for the wealthy

But thanks to seemingly overt corruption, and an economy that still favors the rich, Americans — including many conservative Americans — are becoming hip to the game and beginning to reject the right-wing austerity gospel in favor of more social spending. 

And we largely can thank the GOP for that. 

Stories of alleged conservative grifting — like the welfare scandal involving former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and NFL legend Brett Favre — blow a hole in lies right-wingers tell about social spending and the supposed slackers (read: welfare queens) who take advantage of it. (Both Bryant and Favre have denied any wrongdoing.) There’s no better advertisement for the fair distribution of American tax dollars than seeing rich people line their own pockets with them at others’ expense. 

And Mississippi, where the gospel of austerity is rooted in racist attempts to starve Black communities, isn’t lacking in these gross examples of right-wing economic cruelty. GOP Gov. Tate Reeves, with his remarkably cruel response to the latest water crisis in capital city of Jackson, perfectly embodies the Republican Party’s widespread disdain for poor people and people of color.

And although this cruelty toward mostly marginalized people (Jackson is roughly 80 % Black) is familiar and unlikely to turn off conservatives, there’s clear evidence the austerity gospel of old is beginning to wear thin for many of them, too. Several writers have described what they view as an ideological shift in the GOP — toward social spending — that arose as former President Donald Trump gained power in the party. 

Essentially, Trump’s vows as a candidate in 2016 (no matter how insincere) to protect Social Security and Medicare, two frequent conservative targets, whetted an appetite for what was described in The Washington Post as “entitlement conservatism” in 2019. 

“At its core, this philosophy aims to protect conservative entitlements at the expense of everyone else, and in Trump’s America, it dominates the Republican Party,” authors John S. Huntington and David Austin Walsh wrote. 

There are signs Republicans know the austerity gospel has lost its remaining luster in the eyes of the public. As my MSNBC colleague Steve Benen explained in a recent MaddowBlog, GOP infighting over whether the party should share plans to slash Medicare and Social Security shows how fearful Republicans are about voter backlash — even within their own party. 

And widespread labor fights over worker conditions, set in motion by the pandemic, indicate much of the public has had it with policies that serve their wealthy bosses before them. 

The days of the austerity gospel are over. And the nonbelievers won’t be silenced.