Envy

Republicans have recently attacked President Obama’s tax proposals as products of a “politics of envy” that leads working class Americans to act resentfully against those more successful than themselves. The charge is one of immaturity: if you (Democrats?) would just grow up, you could stop comparing yourself to other people and get to work on achieving that success for yourself.

Sounds good, huh? But it isn’t just liberals that engage in a politics of envy – Republicans do it, too, only on the right, it’s a much more bizarre kind of envy.

One of the biggest problems facing the modern Republican party is its implied assertion that, while it loves America, it doesn’t think Americans are very good people. Among Republican pet causes are voter ID laws (designed to stop nefarious immigrants and felons from disenfranchising other voters through illegitimate ballots, they say) and stand your ground laws (designed to let Americans shoot other Americans if they feel threatened). Now, add to that Romney’s attack on Obama’s welfare work requirement adjustments, which Romney claims will let millions of Americans sit on the couch and collect checks from the rest of us.

The idea of the welfare queen is well established on the right: a bogeyman liberal creation whose sole purpose in life is to leech as much as possible from the taxpayer without contributing anything in return. To many Republicans, the welfare queen not only exists, but in numbers. Cities are packed full of lazy, shiftless liberals who vote Democrat just to keep the redistribution payments coming (out of the pockets of, who else, Republicans).

There’s a binary thinking at work here that permeates discourse on the right – in gun control debates, it’s the difference between “law-abiding Americans” and “criminals,” as if you’re born into one class and you can never escape. In economics it’s “job creators” or “parasites,” in immigration it’s “hardworking Americans” and “job-stealing illegals.” The media, not being slanted decisively to the right, is in Obama’s pocket. The existence of a continuum – of Americans who mostly obey the law but will bend it when pushed, or of entrepreneurial immigrants – is barely ever acknowledged.

And in welfare debates, this binary thinking displays itself as envy. The poor, Romney charges, have it too easy. This is an envy argument, communicating something like I wish I didn’t have to work so hard, or perhaps, you can’t catch a break because other Americans have stolen it from you. It displays a fundamental misunderstanding of poverty, as seen through the eyes of those who no longer have to look at it. Republicans here imagine that they alone are carrying the weight of the nation, and that those who aren’t giving enough back should get going or get out.

Of course, there’s something perverse about arguing that the best way to eradicate poverty is to make it a lethal condition. There are those out there who advocate ending emergency care in hospitals to those who can’t afford it, and cutting food assistance to those who need it, though luckily these are not mainstream positions yet. The idea is that if poverty is crushing enough, people will pull themselves out of it. If it isn’t, they won’t. This seems a particularly callous way of dealing with people overwhelmingly saddled with problems other than mere sloth.

Lest some commentators accuse me of hypocrisy, I want to point out that obviously, not all Republicans lack nuanced thinking. Clearly, some Democrats fall into similar “us or them” traps. The problem is (as it so often is) with party leadership, which embraces divisions in the American population in order to win elections – in this way, it matches up nicely with my earlier post about tacitly courting the bigot vote.

In any case, running against Americans is a dangerous strategy. I don’t want to see the GOP becoming a party of purges and witch hunts, declaring war on poverty, as they say, by waging war on the poor. As for now, though, the prevailing message from the party leadership seems to be that you can’t trust your neighbors, so put your trust in someone who will protect you from them. (And hope you never have to be ‘dealt with’ in the future!)

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