While the Republican platform has always included the mantra of cutting government spending on the poor, minorities, and immigrants, lately they have been willing to attack previously sacrosanct, widely used programs like Social Security and Medicare. They have come after programs like Unemployment Insurance and the Earned Income Tax Credit that support the working class. It seems like pure folly politically, given that nearly 44% of households receive one of these benefits. That’s a lot of voters. So what is the Republican strategy? What could they possibly be thinking?
For starters, they have come up with the phrase, “entitlement society”, and have spent a lot of money trying to get “Real Americans” (particularly White, Christian) to worry that we have one, and that it is ruining the country. They have preached that entitlements are going to bankrupt the nation and doom its children and grandchildren to lower living standards, debt, even some form of slavery. In short, they promote what Jeffrey Sachs has called “entitlement hysteria,” the irrational fear that social programs will wreck the country, encourage dependence and sloth, and benefit unworthy groups who don’t deserve them, despite a considerable amount of available evidence to the contrary.
But who do they get to believe this stuff? Because in addition to the usual suspects – the racists, xenophobes, bitter Southerners– there’s still a lot of people to convince in order to win a national election on cutting Social Security and Medicare. Certainly one group is people with resources who resent sharing. Here you have the comfortably situated conservatives, for whom Social Security and Medicare are or will be a mere supplement. They end up getting the sense that too many of their extended family or neighbors are receiving government benefits, so they want them cut back. Abundant research has described the common cognitive error of attributing one’s own achievements to hard work and positive internal qualities and the Others’ achievements to a lucky break, lower standards, or a lot of help from others. No one should get anything “for free.” “I’ve earned every penny myself, why shouldn’t other people have to?” These guys are greedy, disproportionately white, and fundamentally wrong about never having received a preference or break that helped them succeed. It works like a salve, though, to believe otherwise.
Another group that Mitt Romney, Santorum, or Gingrich will mobilize, amazingly, are people who really depend on government benefits, those who embody the Mysterious, Counterintuitive Voter; the poor soul who’s just getting by but doesn’t have the common sense to vote in his or her own best economic interests. Tea Party rallies have certainly always included the paradoxical man on disability or the woman on Medicare who wants to see the government eliminate socialized medicine. For their article in the New York Times, Appelbaum and Gebeloff tracked down some of these conservatives receiving government benefits and asked them what they are thinking. The answers are simultaneously ordinary and fascinating, and show that the messaging has been effective. The respondents are supporters of Tea Party freshman, and professional benefit recipient, Chip Cravaack. They elected Cravaack because he promised he would go to the Capitol and dramatically cut government spending for the sake of the next generation.
The first thing you notice about those interviewed is that they are deeply conflicted people, even moved to tears over their own dissonance. They seem to have internalized the slander that government benefits are for dependent, lazy people. No matter how much legitimate need enters the picture, they would rather face hardship than accept that those labels could be applied to them. Sincerely worried about runaway government spending, they’ve come to see their own use of government benefits as part of a growing problem. They feel they should be economically independent, and have learned to call their need for help, “dependency”, as if they are addicted to a drug. Few can admit to their honest need for government help, as elderly, disabled, or working poor people who paid into the system, which is true of the vast majority of those receiving benefits.
To ensure success though, Republicans can always count on a third, reliably pliant group: the seriously low information voter who can’t tell you whether the money he gets from having been injured on the job or the low out-of-pocket payments she relies on at the doctor’s office are government programs or not, but, dang it, there’s just too many people who get something for nothing anymore. As Paul Krugman discovered, in response to the same Times article, 40-44% of all benefit recipients do not understand that the Social Security, Medicare, or Unemployment Insurance they receive is a government benefit. This means that a hefty percentage of the conservatives voting to support radical cuts to government spending don’t realize they are directly affecting themselves. It’s a sad spectacle to witness.
The Republican Party is preying on guilt, a manufactured sense of dependency, and sincere concern about the need to sacrifice for the next generation, in addition to their typical appeal to lesser angels. They’ve managed to sell their mean-spirited agenda as dutiful and necessary for the good of the nation. It’s an ingenious manipulation of the party’s lesser informed followers. Low income conservatives, including those receiving government benefits, have bought into the narrative that entitlements are ruining this country. And they want to step up and sacrifice, including with their own benefits, if it helps the cause.
It’s crucial that we don’t allow Republicans to seduce Independents and centrist Democrats with the simplistic, small-minded allure of this narrative. So far, the early poll numbers look good, but liberals will benefit from a well-crafted counter-narrative, and a strategy of aggressive outreach and education. Liberals need to start a long-term project of talking directly to people outside the conservative media bubble with the goal of realigning how Americans think about their relationship with the benefits they earn.