Taking the Low Road: The GOP’s Demonization of Government Benefits

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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.

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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.

28 Replies to “Taking the Low Road: The GOP’s Demonization of Government Benefits”

  1. It’s for each of us to talk to those we know who can still see reason; and admittedly, we face the danger of antagonizing those who no longer can.

  2. I take exception to this:
    ” 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”
    Social Security and Medicare may be a government benefit, but we ALL paid for it! I paid into Social Security from the time I was 15 and went to work, and into Medicare from the 80’s, I think it was, when Reagan decided that we needed to. I am 60 years old now, and a widow. I collect from my account,and my late husband’s, who never got much chance to collect on is own. I resent SS being called an “entitlement” except that,since I paid into it, I’m entitled to receive from it.
    I agree with the rest of the piece though. Thank you.

  3. Deborah, you have brought up a point I don’t recall any of the rest of us thinking of: that Republicans get people to vote for their punitive agenda out of self-hatred and shame, or at least that anyone else has seen it outside the context of inducing misogyny in women. That impoverished people are actually being *guilted* into voting against their own interests out of the fear that they are parasites who are impoverishing their own grandchildren literally never occurred to me.

  4. Actually, “entitlement” is exactly the correct word since you are “entitled” to what you paid into. Only the idiots on the right think “entitlement” is a bad word. Stop bending to their definitions and retake the vocabulary. Furthermore, “elite” is a good thing ;).

  5. You DO realize that all government benefits are supposed to go to the bankers and corporate leaders who work so hard to move our jobs to other countries. That is the Republican mantra, and every cent not spent lining their own pockets is a penny they lose sleep over.

    But I have to agree, SocSec is NOT a benefit, it is a mandated insurance plan. You HAVE to pay in, so they HAVE to pay out, or it’s a swindle. The Ponzi scheme the GOP is so fond of trotting out is THEIR invention, SocSec is like an insurance company – or should be, except the GOP kept raiding the account, which they weren’t supposed to be able to do, but like so many things GOP, the rules just don’t seem to matter. Their definition of Entitlement is, and has always been, “I’m Entitled to do anything I want…”

  6. This is exactly what the Democrats need to do. Furthermore, the Democrats need to stand by their positions and show some spine. Once they do that independents like me will stand with them. Until that happens I will be standing up for what I believe in by myself.

    I will take anyone on, anytime, anywhere. Come get some!

  7. The republican party is who you can thank for manufacturing the label of “entitlement society”. They are also the ones who have have taken to referring to SS as an “entitlement program.” They are still holding a 76 year old grudge against Roosevelt because he took them out behind the woodshed and whipped their asses repeatedly and frequently.

    The republican goal is to lump people like you who receive SS, disability, or unemployment all into one big group right alongside the people who collect welfare. They expect the rest of America to believe that SS (like welfare) is just a free ride for families where nobody has ever worked and never will. And that people (particularly people who AREN’T WHITE) have been encouraging their children to take advantage of it for generations. The author of this article just points this out to everyone. He didn’t invent the term and wasn’t (himself) calling SS an entitlement.

    If you collect SS or use medicare … the republican party is NOT your friend. They are the most despicable group of people to ever populate this country. Many Americans are now finally realizing this for the first time.

  8. Politrix anyone ?? Our“entitlement society” is actually all the retired politicians living on retirement benefits they don’t even pay into, never did, and still get them for life.

  9. Jacquie, I think if you put this into context it will be easier. The point was that 40-44% of the people did not understand that the insurance they get comes from the government. that was the point. Not that it is a benefit that you are not entitled to. The people were afraid that the government would take away what they were getting, even though they did not understand that came from the government itself

  10. When John McCain released his 2008 taxes it was discovered that he was making $39,000 a year in Social Security payments. As I am soon going to start receiving Social Security and reading over the pamphlet they sent me, if I make over $14,000 a year my Social Security will be cut one dollar for every two dollars I make. How is John McCain with a well over $170,000 year salary still receiving $39,000? To me that is the height of shame they should be but is not felt. A person who is a multimillionaire yet who is still so greedy he is grabbing $39,000 a year out of Social Security

  11. My understanding is that, once you reach 65, they no longer make this deduction. Currently, the age may have been raised, but whatever it is, you can bet John McCain is over it.

  12. The author writes of these low information voters as though they care about America, and they struggle and feel bad about using government programs, No they don’t!! They feel completely entitled to use the programs, they just don’t want others having access to such programs. If they use them it’s because they worked hard and deserve a helping hand, if a poor person, minority or a Democrat,uses the same programs, they are mooching off the government because their socilist, Kenyan born, non-elected leader who is a muslim made it so wonderful to live on foodstamps in public housing. Republicans make me sick!! Why are they still even taken seriously on any issue, they have proven they are unfit to lead in any manner!!

  13. Good one. But I’m going to go out on limb and say that a good number of tea party voters are actually not completely motivated by shame-free selfishness. If my portrayal of conservatives on government benefits makes them seem like decent, salt-of-the-earth type people with a willingness to sacrifice for the next generation, I must admit that, full disclosure, I am related to a great number of this conservative type, and am thus sympathetic to how they have been duped by Republican doctrine. I have personally witnessed the debt laden, retired public employee ask how to give up part of her pension to help the state budget. I have received the holiday letter from the aunt on Social Security praising the Declaration of INdependence and bemoaning the country’s fall into DEpendence [their emphasis]. Obviously, conservatives on government benefits are also wholly capable of being people who resent sharing, but I know too many who are being convinced by the GOP narrative to believe any government benefit is shameful and draining on the system.

  14. Ah, well, I’m 68, and unlike you, I’ll never be able to tell anyone one I’m a millionaire. I can only say I squandered my money on my education and, for as long as I could afford them, good deeds.

  15. This article describes one of my biggest pet peeves. You’re darn right it’s an entitlement ! I paid my money and I’m entitled to get it back. If repubs want to eliminate SS and Medicare, then I want every penny back that I have paid into it. It is my money and not their’s.

  16. I’m going to repost a comment I made above, because it completely applies to your comment as well. I’m going to go out on limb and say that a good number of low information voters are actually not completely motivated by selfishness and the a desire to cut others off. They interviewed some of them in the NYT article. These people even voted for a guy who promised he was going to cut programs they receive. Unbelievably, they support this rather than raise taxes on the wealthy, which Minnesota had the chance to do. Obviously, conservatives on government benefits are also wholly capable of being selfish jerks, but I know too many (extended family) who are being convinced by the GOP narrative to believe that they should also be giving up their own benefits.

  17. Seems to me the RePUBIC-clowns are out to destroy anything which remotely smacks of a social conscience. Perhaps the slimy amphibian (Newt) has a good idea when he speaks of a colony on the moon. He could be the Lord of the Manor and employ Mr. Bendy Boots Romney as his treasurer and Ayatollah Santorum as his custodian of public morals. Then, all those who are intellectually bankrupt enough to follow these clowns can take a one-way shuttle ride and leave the rest of us alone.

  18. They didn’t cut you off as soon as he died? That’s what they did to my father-in-law when my mother-in-law died. Both of them had worked through their entire life.

    Maybe it’s something at the state level (like us, he lives in Florida). It made life a lot tougher.

  19. There was a time when widows got a benefit for a deceased spouse but widowers did not; I thought that was abolished forty years back.

  20. What are roads,streets,the Interstate Highway system? What are city-owned international airports? What are State Universities and Community Colleges? What are sewers and Water Departments ???

    I can go on and on. These are things taxpayers subsidies.

  21. Heres one more I learned today. When John Glenn went to college he discovered that he could take pilots training for free, the government subsidized it. The rest as we have come to understand is history.

    Heres to John Glenn on his 50th anniversary of orbital flight

  22. if you in to it, then you are entitled to it. Why not feel like you deserve to use the idea that it is owed to you , that is, you are entitled to it ?

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