Entitlement

The Politics of Entitlement

By

To be entitled means believing you have an inherent right to something. It is very easy to feel entitled, to feel like we deserve a certain quality of life or valuable opportunities. I don’t know that anyone is immune from entitlement at one time or another. It’s what you do with that sense of entitlement that matters more.

I believe every American is entitled to healthcare. I believe Americans are entitled to not suffering from hunger. I believe Americans are entitled to shelter. To have these basic human needs fulfilled should be an inherent right for all Americans.

Then, there is Mitt Romney.

***

I haven’t written much about this presidential race because I am a fairly staunch Democrat, because I am disillusioned, because the tenor of this race turns my stomach, because with a candidate like Romney as the opposition, there is only one choice for me.

The Democrats are not without flaws but they do represent the lesser of two evils from where I stand. I believe in reproductive freedom, unfettered access to abortion, funding for the arts, the abolishment of the death penalty, universal healthcare, an equitable tax structure, and social services for those among us who need such support. I believe in the importance of public education and the student loan program. I believe we should support soldiers as strenuously after they return from a tour of duty as during. I believe marriage is a civil right that should not be determined by sexuality and I hold any number of other principles that make the Democratic party the only reasonable option.

I wish there were other options, that we weren’t limited to choosing between the lesser of two evils. In the meantime, I support the president who has not been perfect but who has been a good leader.

***

Entitlement has been one of the focal points of the 2012 election season. Mitt Romney is particularly concerned with entitlement. Romney is working very hard to cultivate a culture of fear among Republicans—a fear that the opposition is trying to compromise the conservative way of life. Support Romney, or lose everything you hold dear, monetarily and morally. Romney particularly resents that the working and middle class are entitled to tax-payer funded help when they need it. He seems to want a world where everything depends on what you can afford, not just where you live, how you treat illnesses, the taxes you pay, but also the roads you drive on, the mail you have delivered, every single thing you take for granted. It’s unclear where Romney would like these working and middle class entitlements to end. It is unclear what kind of life he expects us to live in a world free of these so-called entitlements.

Mitt Romney is wealthy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a Democrat but I have no problem with capitalism and certainly benefit from it. I don’t care that he has a car elevator in his California home or that his wife rides some kind of fancy horses or that he is vigorously out of touch with reality. How he spends his money and coddles himself is his business.

I do take issue with the notion the only people who matter are those who can spend their money in such extravagant ways.

It is ironic that Mitt Romney spends so much time worrying about people who feel entitled to having basic human needs satisfied because he is the embodiment of entitlement and has been for his entire life. What truly drives Romney’s campaign is not that he believes in America or that he wants to make the country a better place. Instead, he believes in himself to such an extent he also believes he is entitled to be the President of the United States simply because he is Mitt Romney, a captain of industry, a great white hope.

***

I don’t know what I think about politics, anymore. I just don’t. I don’t know how to have faith in politics anymore but I’m trying not to become too disillusioned because cynicism and apathy accomplish nothing.

Until I was asked to write for the 90 Days, 90 Reasons project, I didn’t feel terribly compelled to participate in the process in even a small way. Politics, these days, are unseemly and rancorous and not in an interesting way. Our elected leaders, on both sides of the aisle, are more interested in genital measuring and bravado and empty rhetoric and maintaining their elite positions than serving those who elected them. Far too few politicians have the best interests at heart of anyone but themselves.

Politics are a spectacle and when I think about how much money is being spent on this election, I am stunned. By the end of July 2012, Obama had raised $587.7 million and Romney had raised $524.2 million. Each candidate hopes to raise $750 million by November 6.

When we start thinking about campaign finance in terms of hundreds of millions and billions of dollars, we have a grave problem on our hands. This obscene fundraising brings into sharp relief that the presidency is for sale and that’s an entitlement too, that you can buy the power you want.

When I think of the ways that money could be better spent, I feel like we’re in a dystopian future where only the air we breathe is still clean and free and just barely.

***

We don’t really know what political candidates stand for anymore. With the 24-hour news cycle, politicians spend more time creating platforms based on negation so they can get a provocative message in front of as many Americans as possible. Political debate has become a series of distractions, elusions, and countermeasures.

Romney’s overall strategy thus far has been to make it clear he is Not Obama. If Obama stands for this, Romney stands for the opposite even though when you look at Romney’s record, particularly on, say, healthcare, there are more similarities than differences.

The Not Obama strategy reveals the fragility of Romney’s platform but he also understands the choir to which he is preaching, people who would prefer any candidate who is Not Obama. They are the people who considered Gingrich and Santorum viable candidates, too simply because they are Not Liberals, Not Obama, Not Black.

This is not to say Obama is taking radical, liberal positions. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in his Atlantic essay, “Fear of a Black President,” “Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation.”

What is worse? A candidate who stands for nothing or a president who stands firmly entrenched in the center?

And yet.

President Obama has made me believe in hope and that counts for something, it does. Despite the missteps (Guantanamo, upholding The Patriot Act, etc) and there are several, Obama has created a significant amount of change during a fairly unprecedented economic crisis and global turmoil. President Obama has made steps toward universal healthcare. He has come out in support of equal marriage. He worked to save the auto industry. He repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Obama may be invested in moderation but he gets quite a lot done from the middle. We shouldn’t discount his accomplishments in our eagerness to find a politician whose heart bleeds as liberally as ours.

***

For the next few days or weeks or maybe until November, many people will gleefully skewer Romney’s latest gaffe because he has so gloriously stepped in political shit. At a fundraiser, after receiving the Republican nomination, Romney discussed how a significant percentage of Americans who supposedly don’t pay taxes believe they are “victims,” believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, that they are entitled to healthcare, food, and housing—such extravagant luxuries. Apparently Romney believes we should govern by an ethos of survival of the fittest. If you cannot feed or heal or house yourself, alas. Romney also seems, as David Brooks notes in The New York Times, to know very little about the United States. “Ninety-two percent [of Americans] say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey.” This is not a country of lazy people holding their hands out. Instead, we are a country where opportunity is unequal and where all too often, hard work is not enough.

These are the moments we wait for in modern politics, those moments when politicians make such a significant mistake, their culpability is clear. There will be think pieces and comic routines and gifs and memes all basically saying, “Can you believe this guy?” Hopefully there will also be some rational discussion about Romney’s overwhelming privilege and entitlement and disregard for most Americans.

Brooks also shows that the majority of people who receive government benefits are the people in Romney’s own party. “The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.”

It is desperately easy to dismantle Romney’s position in the video clips of his uncensored remarks. It is easy to dismantle the way he is openly unconcerned about nearly half of the people in this country as if the American presidency allows for being selective about whom you lead.

If nothing else, Romney’s tax rate or lack thereof opens him to any number of criticisms. And then of course there is the callousness of such thinking, a seeming willingness for Americans to suffer if they cannot afford to improve their circumstances. His comments make me wonder what else Romney considers a luxury—clean air, civil defense, education? He is also inviting questions about his faith because the Mormon Church has one of the most comprehensive welfare programs in the world. They take care of their own and they take care of others. Is such assistance not entitlement when bestowed upon a chosen people?

What does it mean when the Republican nominee for President of the United States has an arbitrary and ever-shifting stance on entitlement while also possessing a complete ignorance of his own entitlement?

The question that really interests me, though, is what it means that pundits will have a field day making a mockery of Romney’s latest misstep, which is but one of many. Is making fun of Romney and exhaustively repeating what we’ve long known about the man the right conversation or a productive conversation? Is it necessary to take so much pleasure in how very much Mitt Romney is Not Obama?

I don’t know nor can I say I take no pleasure in how plainly Romney is allowing us to see the man he really is and the morally impoverished leader he would be.

***

There is no such thing as a perfect president but I prefer that whomever holds the office demonstrates humanity and humility. I prefer a president who is willing to preside humanely over all his constituents, and not only those who share his tax bracket and ideology.

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The United States relies on a series of founding documents to guide how we are ruled. In many ways, these documents have served remarkably well for more than 225 years. I often think about the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These simple words still inspire a faith in this idea that is America, even with the world the way it is.

And surely food, healthcare, and shelter can be considered inalienable lights. Surely we are a more perfect union when we consider the needs of all who live within that union.

The question I can’t let go of this political season though, is how does anyone support a political platform where every right is alienable?


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →