Defunding dissent

President Trump’s “skinny” budget is effectively a declaration of war on what chief White House strategist Steve Bannon calls the “administrative state.” The $1.5 trillion budget proposal seeks a ten per cent increase for military spending offset by the elimination of 19 federal agencies in order to save $10.5 trillion of government spending over the next decade. Agencies that would disappear under the new proposal include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Critics of the proposed cuts note that the total outlay for these three agencies is a minuscule fraction of overall government discretionary spending (three-thousandths of one per cent each for the NEA and NEH; a hundredth of one per cent for the CPB). Both the NEA and NEH could not only be preserved, but get an extra $50 million each if, for example, the administration chose instead to cut federal spending on military marching bands – which consume a staggering $437 million of government spending annually. That it has not chosen to do so, nor, given its strident emphasis on putting America first, would likely even consider such an idea, underscores President Trump’s determination  to burnish his image as a scourge of America’s bicoastal elites who, in the eyes of aggrieved conservatives, have had their cultural whims indulged with public subsidies for far too long.

Conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have argued that an agency like the NEA is “an unwarranted extension of the federal government into the voluntary sector”, that the Endowment stifles charitable giving to the arts, “offers little more than a direct subsidy to the cultured, upper-middle class” and supplies “tax dollars and the federal seal of approval to subsidize ‘art’ that is offensive to most Americans.” Since the culture wars of the 1960s, the American right has seen such agencies as bastions of liberal thinking that are some of their opponents’ most effective means of dissent. A central idea of the conservative backlash against President Clinton was the need to “defund the left” by starving its institutions of federal money. This had proved tricky during the Reagan era because of the president’s ties to arts-friendly Hollywood, but now the new administration clearly believes that a hobbling of the long disparaged cultural elite is attainable.

There are, of course, many other points of contention in the Trump budget, including sizeable cuts to educational and environmental programmes, to local aid for disaster relief funds, to ‘meals on wheels’ programmes, and to international initiatives like the United Nations Green Climate Fund and funding for the World Bank. Delivering on these cuts will test the mettle of the Republican incumbents even with their near stranglehold on the US legislature, but whether or not the cuts are achieved, Trump’s budget has placed liberal America on notice that the President wasn’t simply blustering when he threatened to disappear parts of the government that he didn’t like.

The reason that the proposed cuts to America’s arts and culture programmes are so important is that they would represent an unprecedented retreat from government involvement in an exceptionally creative, provocative and fertile area of American life. They would also institutionalise the promotion or depreciation of culture for political reasons – an appalling idea as the disastrous record of government supervised culture in Soviet Russia amply demonstrated. Whether wilfully or not, conservative critiques of federal arts funding ignore what is most important about them, that they foster the forceful expression of other ways of seeing the world. The cultural significance of such activities cannot be measured by popularity alone, nor treated like a beauty pageant.

In an article on the growing scarcity of cultural criticism the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross notes that “once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space [in the media] to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm.” In a prescient warning about what the new dispensation in US politics may entail in broader terms, Ross continues: “In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the super-rich.” This is indeed what the Trump budget proposes, and it is a worrying sign of what lies ahead in the United States and, by extension, in other countries that succumb to the simplifications of populist leaders.


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