Land of the "Free Stuff," Home of the Brave

If you want to explain why your party lost a presidential election, there are a number of places to look. You can blame your candidate and his campaign (which usually means, "If only they had listened to me!"). You can blame your party and ask if it should examine its ideology or its rhetoric. You can blame the media. Or you can blame the voters. As the old political saw says, "The people have spoken—the bastards." And that is what one conservative after another has been saying over the last week.

They aren't saying that the voters are uninformed, or that they allowed themselves to be duped. Instead, Barack Obama's re-election is said to be a moral failing on the part of the American public. They got what they wanted, conservatives are saying. And what was it they wanted? Universal health coverage, higher taxes on the wealthy, strong environmental regulations, legal abortion? Nope. They wanted free stuff. Because that's just how those people are.

This was perhaps articulated most vividly by Bill O'Reilly, who on election night lamented the fact that "the white establishment is no longer the majority" and said, "It's not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama."

It didn't start on election day; this is a tune that Republicans have been playing for a couple of years now, and nearly everyone, from media figures to members of Congress to their presidential nominee himself, joined in with increasing frequency over the last few months. "You either get free stuff or you get freedom. You cannot have both," said Sarah Palin back in September. "Offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives," wrote National Review's Kevin Williamson after the election. "You have two generations now who believe that the government owes them something," said conservative columnist Cal Thomas. "If you're looking for free stuff you don't have to pay for, vote for the other guy," said Mitt Romney during the campaign. And of course, his infamous 47 percent video was all about those people who think they are "entitled" to government benefits.

The truth, of course, is that every single person in America gets benefits from the U.S. government. We get defended from invasion, we get roads to drive on, we get reasonably clean air to breathe, we get parks and schools and so much else. But that's not the "free stuff" conservatives are talking about. They're talking about the government giving you something directly as an individual, like money. But there's a problem here too: Lots and lots of Americans, including most of those whom Republicans deem morally worthy, get plenty of stuff from the government. I'm not even talking about bank bailouts, or corporations like General Electric rewriting the tax code so they pay nothing. I'm talking about individual people, the kind of people Republicans like, getting direct government aid.

There is nothing–nothing–that makes, say, Medicare superior to unemployment benefits, even though as far as conservatives are concerned, only receiving the latter makes you a "taker." If you're unemployed, you paid taxes, and now the government is helping you in your time of need. There is nothing that makes the mortgage interest deduction morally superior to food stamps, even though conservatives like one but not the other. The government has decided, wisely or not, that it wants to promote home ownership, so it pays for part of millions of homeowners' mortgage interest. The government has also decided that it's bad for our society if people starve, so if your income falls below the level where it will be difficult to afford food and also pay for the other necessities of life, it give you some help in buying food.

So what is it that, in conservatives' minds, distinguishes the "makers" from the "takers," particularly when, as political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides report, "97 percent of Republicans and 98 percent of Democrats report that they have used at least one government social policy"? Think hard, and it'll come to you.

Even if Mitt Romney had not chosen Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan to be his running mate, this election would still have seen the triumph of a Randian attitude on the right, in which every policy and everyone they don't like is attacked as a despicable parasite sucking off the labors of their economic betters. We had Romney's absurdly mendacious welfare ad ("You wouldn't have to work … they just send you your welfare check"). We had Newt Gingrich proclaiming that he'd love to explain to the NAACP "why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." We had the attack on Sandra Fluke for allegedly wanting "free contraception," or even asking for taxpayers to pay for it ("Ms. Fluke wants us to pick up her lifestyle expenses!" said Bill O'Reilly), when what she advocated was that the insurance coverage that women themselves pay for should cover contraception. We had conservatives fascinated by the idea that poor voters were being given free "Obama phones" (don't ask). To the right, if you were voting for Obama it could only be because you wanted to get something from the government you didn't deserve.

But if you want to find a real sense of entitlement, the place to look is among the country's wealthy, the people who turned over hundreds of millions of dollars to Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie in their failed attempt to drive Barack Obama from office. They may not have been able to propel one of their own to the White House, but despite all their resentment and complaining things have never been better for the country's economic Übermenschen. Not only do they hold more of the nation's wealth than at any time since the Gilded Age, the privileges of that wealth have never been greater. Their taxes have never been lower. The entire world offers special concierge services to shield them from the indignities and inconveniences of everyday life. And now, they have new freedoms in the political realm as well; where they might have had to hold their tongues in the past, thanks to Citizens United they are now free to strong-arm their employees to vote in the right way, complete with threats of layoffs should the voters be so vulgar as to elect a Democratic president.

Perhaps by the time 2016 arrives, the Republican party will find a message that resonates with voters more effectively than "You people make me sick." For now, though, that's what they're sticking with.

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