The Have-Nots Paradox

Thomas Edsall has an insightful description of how the ongoing changes in party politics reached apotheosis in the present election, turning the Democrats to a party of “haves” and the Republicans to a party of “have nots.”  Yet, in so doing, he introduces a peculiar paradox:  how the wealthy who now make constitute the core of the Democratic Party seem more “generous” while the poor who make up the Republicans apparently are not.  Specifically, he observes:

There is, in addition, a significant difference in the attitudes toward the poor coming from voters in the “social elite” and those from “the disinherited.” Asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Most Americans who live in poverty are there because of their own bad habits and choices,” the social elite sharply disagreed, 81-19, while the disinherited were split (47.2 percent agree, 52.8 percent disagree).

It is not clear to me that this is necessarily accurate:  the people who (would) make up “disinherited,” after all, did make up the coalition that coined the seemingly paradoxical phrase “get government out of my Medicare.”  I don’t think this idea is at all paradoxical:  they came to accept the idea of Medicare as a basic right, not necessarily something that is granted them as a “favor” by the government.  If something is part of the basic set of rights, then it exists beyond “government,” not something that one should be “grateful” for.  “Government” is not necessarily the body of infrastructure that maintain and provide for the “rights” of “the people,” but a group of political actors who seek to change the way government policy is administered and the “rights” are distributed.  It is worth remembering that what the Obamacare skeptics feared most was not that the services would be expanded, but the fear that, in order to provide for the expansion, existing services and “rights” would be cut.  Since they did not feel that they had a say in how that process was going to be undertaken and did not trust those who were supposedly going to be doing the cutting–i.e. the “government”–it stood to reason that they should have indeed been suspicious, whether justified or not.  The assurance that they needed, then, was not simply that the new system was going to be “better” (they don’t know that) but that everything that they already had was going to be stay the same.  That all the existing “rights” would remain unchanged, that the “Medicare” in the form of the rights that the “disinherited” already had, was going to be kept in an ironclad lockbox, so to speak.  Whether this would have been trusted, or deemed as a dirty back door trick, who knows?  But this was the path that was not taken–simply expanding Medicare to cover the uninsured would have changed as little as possible while expanding coverage, while, most importantly, providing the necessary proof that nothing was changing except more people getting coverage, but, to repeat, this is not what happened, in favor of significant changes and new infrastructure for providing new services, which did not engender trust among the people who were already distrustful.

In a sense, this is a rhetorical difference:  do all “people” have the basic right to certain minimum “floor,” in education, health, and livelihood?  I don’t think the “disinherited” will differ much from the “affluent” in how they answer this question.   But I don’t think people ask this question often enough.  When the question is couched in terms of receiving favors, from government or others, this is different.  Favors come with a price and/or a disreputable tag.  Proud people do not want to be subject of someone’s mercy and pity, and that is a good thing, because proud people will go beyond the letter of the contract to do what needs to be done if only for the pride in themselves, their accomplishments, and their mission.  But they do recognize that, sometimes, they fall on hard times and need a helping hand, to maintain their dignity on which their pride rests on.  Couching the “help” as “rights” helps preserve this pride and dignity.  Insisting that they are recipients of help and favor helps succor the self-righteousness of those who are offering it, but they do so at the price of destroying the pride and dignity of the recipients.  I always wondered if this is the problem:  a welfare state needs to be based on the notion of rights, of proud citizens who are entitled to a minimum of dignity, not pitiable wrecks subsisting on the favors of the haves, sullen and wallowing in self-pity.  Yet, the way American welfare state has been presented seemed to increasingly be heading in the latter direction:  we the enlightened leaders think that those who we think are deserving of pity should be forcibly handed our largess so that we can feel good about how generous and wonderful we are.  Well, the predictable response to this would be “we don’t want your self-serving crap, white man.”  This is what happened in many colonial societies (and many of them, in turn, were swallowed up by smooth-talking conmen who took over as dictators).  Apparently, this is what is taking place now in United States.

Romans drew a sharp distinction between “citizens” and “subjects,” and this continued throughout the Middle Ages, in the form of distinction between “nobles” and “peasants,” as well as “citizens” of various city states, which were positions of privilege, not just anyone.  Citizens and nobles were entitled to certain dignity, even if they were to be executed for treason–hanging was considered particularly contemptuous form of punishment because they were reserved for peasants only, and except in the most extraordinary circumstances, nobles and citizens were not hanged, but were beheaded or shot.  (This places the guillotine during the French Revolution in a peculiar context:  everyone was beheaded, befitting their status as “citizens,” not hanged like mere peasants.)  The “dignity” and “pride,” however symbolic they might have been, was carefully preserved.  At the same time, however, this also meant that citizenship (and nobility) was not usually universally distributed:  it was only the dying days of the Roman Empire that Roman citizenship became universal, and by then, the value of Roman citizenship had fallen to nothingness.  For all the bravado about universal citizenship and rights during the Revolutionary days, the French state of the 19th century went far out of their way to protect the rights of French citizens from encroachment by foreign powers, not just “anyone” but because they were special, because they were French “citizens”–this was, among others, how the French wound up intervening in Mexico in 1838, leading to a shootout in Vera Cruz with a group of Mexican soldiers during which General Santa Ana lost a leg while charging after some French soldiers who were retreating anyways.

The idea of “citizenship” which confers “rights” only on proper “citizens,” unfortunately, turns into its own rabbit hole.  It is necessarily parochial and restrictive.  Not everyone will be “citizens,” entitled to the rights thereof.  But who shall be granted these rights?  This obviously ties into the “immigration” debate, especially of the rights of immigrants to gain legal status and the associated “rights of citizenship” (not necessarily same as that of legal “citizenship.”)  It also feeds into racist sentiments among certain unpleasant groups, who hold that only “real Americans” (whatever that means) should hold rights of citizenship.  Some balance must be struck between the two extremes:  some delimiting and “restrictive” enough criterion that entitles one to benefits of citizenship as a matter of unconditional right beyond politics has to be defined, but that criterion has to be universal enough to be not limited to boundaries of race, creed, and any other problematic categories.  In the end, I suppose, this criterion would have to be something “mystical, spiritual, and irrational,” something that exists because people believe in it, not necessarily because it has a “logical” basis (even if well-defined–after all, it will have to be legally enforceable.)   I always hated the world of Starship Troopers–the novel by Heinlein, not the movie by Verhoeven that savagely mocked the novel–but, in a way, I am beginning to appreciate its underlying logic, and how it  might be created without descending into fascism.  (but Verhoeven is also right–an attempt to create a sense of citizenship without an obvious common “cultural cues” as the focal point is bound to be dangerous and potentially open to massive abuse…)


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