Mitt Romney started the primary campaign by suggesting that federal arts funding should be cut in half. Now, in an interview with Fortune Magazine, he’s gone a step further, and has said that as president, he would entirely eliminate the subsidies for PBS, and for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. That shift in his position might be more devastating to the people who benefit from those subsidies, both as employees and as audiences for the work supported by them. But it’s a move that, rather than clarifying Romney’s views on the proper scope of government, move him deeper into a dodge that reveals the fundamental unseriousness of beating up on the arts.
Talking about cutting arts funding is a diversionary tactic, both in terms of the amount of money that would actually be saved by doing so, and in terms of a philosophical discussion about what the proper funding of government is. The arts are an easy thing to toss to the crowd because you can cherry-pick an example of something that was funded by the NEA or NEH that will sound silly to someone, even if it has tremendous value in terms of preserving folklife traditions or ensuring access to arts and culture to rural communities. Arts funding is a way at getting at an interesting question. Should the government perform functions only that we believe shouldn’t be allowed to be controlled by private interests, like control, regulation, and deployment of the armed forces? Or should it step into voids left by private enterprise and personal charity when there are important functions that don’t appear to be supported by the market? That’s a real conversation, and scapegoating arts funding is a way of avoiding it.
And the profound unseriousness of going after spending by targeting programs with small budgets and without constituencies that are perceived to be powerful (or as is the case with Amtrak, something else Romney has proposed cutting funding for, with constituencies it’s politically valuable to rope-a-dope with) is really something that Republican politicians should be held accountable for. There are a lot of conservatives who enjoy the credit for talking about shrinking government but don’t actually want to be held responsible for taking things away from people, and the arts are a convenient space for them to stake that particular ground. It would be awfully nice if Paul Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket forced Romney out of that space and into an honest debate about what shrinking government would mean. But it strikes me as more likely that Ryan will get pulled into this sliver of territory that lets conservatives talk and talk about spending, without actually having something meaningful, and difficult, to say.