Having grown up and studied political science in the United States, I am continually baffled by the fact that the word “austerity” largely exists outside of our political vocabulary, especially considering how our political system, like that of the United Kingdom, is so rife with austerity policies. So, I figured I would create a brief explainer for my fellow Americans who have never interacted with the term, as well as make the case that we need to insert it into our political discourse (and fast!)
What is austerity?
The Financial Times lexicon describes austerity measures as “official actions taken by the government . . . to reduce its budget deficit using a combination of spending cuts or tax rises.” Modern austerity policies, however, almost always center around spending cuts and are even coupled at times with tax breaks. The most recent budget (which was just signed into law by the Trump Administration) is an example of austerity policies, as it cut funding from the State Department, the EPA, and many other “discretionary” departments. Like most American austerity policies, however, this cut in spending was coupled with a cut in taxes that rendered the impact on our national debt minimal. In our current political climate, it is virtually impossible for American politicians to pass austerity policies which raise taxes, meaning American austerity is characterized by cutting funding from government programs (specifically programs which help the poor).
Why should I care?
In order to truly understand the significance of austerity policies to American politics, we have to first talk about neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the modern majoritarian political and economic philosophy practiced in the West, in the legacy of leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In the United States, neoliberalism has been the political philosophy of both major parties since the Bill Clinton presidency. Neoliberalism is a capitalist ideology characterized by finance, low spending, low taxes, deregulation, austerity policies (!!!), and limited union influence. The fact that both American political parties follow this ideology explains a lot about why you might hear leftists refer to the Democratic Party as “right of center” and why some centrists and moderates subscribe to debunked political philosophies like the horseshoe theory. After all, when both major parties in your country follow the same political philosophy, it’s easy to blur together (and discredit as radical) all alternative philosophies.
This also means that, no matter who is in charge in the US, you’re going to be subjected to some form of austerity policies over the course of their tenure. Earlier I mentioned Trump, but austerity policies also characterized the Obama presidency, as well as Bush before him, Clinton before him, Bush Sr. before him, and Reagan before him. Before you ask, yes, Hillary Clinton campaigned on it as well, and I would bet you money that, as candidates for 2020 begin to release their economic platforms, you will see austerity in almost every single one (with the notable exceptions of any candidate who identifies as a “socialist” being that neoliberalism and austerity are capitalist concepts). While Democratic austerity looks different from Republican austerity, the point is that both parties are practice such policies in some way, shape, or form. For something so pervasive in our political discourse, though, we don’t seem to mention it much.
Why bother talking about austerity?
I recognize that this article is mostly semantic, but there is something larger at play. By having this term “austerity” in the vernacular of everyday citizens, other countries have the ability to identify and debate these policies more effectively than we do in the US. After all, where there is “austerity,” it must follow that there is something called “not austerity,” right? And, in politics abroad, “not austerity” is a talking point. Politicians are capable of discussing and campaigning against austerity, which is much more difficult to do in a place where you must first explain what austerity is.
To be able to acknowledge that the way politicians govern is not a sliding scale of most-to-least neoliberal but potentially not neoliberal at all is incredibly important for Americans as we head into 2020. Austerity policies time and time and time and time and time again have proven to harm people, hurt economies, and eventually fall out of favor because of their effects. However, an idea cannot fall out of favor until it is acknowledged to be in favor. (And, for those of you reading who think everything I’ve just said is wrong and austerity is just the bee’s knees, you can’t very well defend austerity either if there’s no cultural or political significance to the word.)
So, to my American readers out there — all twelve of you — I encourage you to start making use of the term “austerity” not just to describe things that exist outside of our political bubble in Europe or Asia but also as an accurate descriptor for the policies being advocated for by both parties and every president in recent decades. While you’re at it, start making use of the word “neoliberal” too, not just as a slur my leftist friends use against everyone they don’t like, but also as an accurate descriptor for just about everything our political and economic system does. It’s time we broaden our collective political imagination, outside of just what we’re told is possible. Changing the way we “talk politics” is a necessary first step.