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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rehabilitating "Entitlements"

Last week Mike Lofgren, a former professional Capitol Hill staffer and self-confessed "GOP Operative Who Left the Cult," published an article at Truth Out explaining how badly the GOP has gone off the rails, and how willing it is to intentionally damage the country if Republicans think doing so will help their electoral chances. It is one hell of an article, and it confirms pretty much even the craziest-sounding suspicions Liberals have had about the Grand Old Party for some time. Indeed, Lofgren's article lays out the GOP playbook, and that playbook reads like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for Republicans. (And yes, I know the Protocols were an anti-semitic hoax. I'm just trying to make a point.) If you haven't had the opportunity to read it yet, I urge you to do so here.

Not that Lofgren has much love for the Democrats either. The contempt he has for the party's institutional weakness and the Dems' capacity for getting rolled by Republicans is palpable. As an example of the Dems' weakness, Lofgren calls out Democrats' seeming inability to comprehend how important framing and language is to capturing the low information voters that our media insists on labeling "independents":
Democrats ceded the field. Above all, they do not understand language. Their initiatives are posed in impenetrable policy-speak: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? The what? -- can anyone even remember it? No wonder the pejorative "Obamacare" won out. Contrast that with the Republicans' Patriot Act. You're a patriot, aren't you? Does anyone at the GED level have a clue what a Stimulus Bill is supposed to be? Why didn't the White House call it a Jobs Bill and keep pounding on that theme?

You know that Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy when even Democrats refer to them as entitlements. "Entitlements" has a negative sound in colloquial English: somebody who is "entitled" selfishly claims something he doesn't really deserve. Why not call them "earned benefits," which is what they are because we all contribute payroll taxes to fund them? That would never occur to the Democrats.
I, of course, am a big believer in the power of language to shape and even control or define debate. And I agree with Lofgren about the Dems needing to come up with pithier names for their legislative goals. When dealing with low information voters, a phrase is all that might stick in their minds; how many members of Congress - thinking ahead to the campaign ads their opponent would run during the next election - do you imagine found it difficult to even contemplate voting against something called "The Patriot Act"? More than a few, I'd wager.

But I'm going to disagree with Lofgren on the use of the term "entitlements." Sure, we could simply switch up the language and start calling them something new (although "earned benefits" sounds clunky to me), but that would take years to catch on - if it ever did - and in the meantime the Republicans would make hay by accusing the Democrats of "playing word games." I think a better way to address the problem is to simply rehabilitate the term "entitlement," and I don't think that would be too difficult to do.

Just as there is proper discrimination (say, between good and bad, or between right and wrong) and improper discrimination (say, based on skin color, or religion, or sexual orientation, or gender), there are also deserved entitlements and undeserved entitlements. All that needs be done is to remind the American public that benefits like Social Security and Medicare are deserved entitlements.

It's an easy thing to explain, we just have to do so over and over and over again until it gets beaten into the American psyche like an annoying pop song you can't get out of your head. Ideally, what I'd like to see is a concerted effort whereby every single Democratic politician and left-leaning pundit who appears on TeeVee just seizes on the word the second it escapes the host's or any other guest's lips and says:
No, we're not gonna cut entitlements, and d'you know why? Because the American people are entitled to 'em. Each and every paycheck any American has ever picked up, money was taken out to pay for things like Social Security and Medicare. And y'know what? When you've already paid for something you're entitled to it.
This is an easy to understand, commonsense message that nobody would have any trouble remembering, comprehending, or repeating. Best of all, for any low information voter who hears that message, it sure sounds like the guy saying it is looking out for that voter's interests.

I dunno. Maybe I'm just being naive, but it seems to me that if that message were repeated ad nauseum, every day, day after day after day, the Republicans and their Villager enablers would find it a lot more difficult to appear in public and blithely talk about the pressing need to cut "entitlements."

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