You remember the Joe the Plumber story, right? JTP meets Candidate Obama, Obama says economy works best if we "spread the wealth around," JTP cries "Socialism!," McCain campaign latches on to JTP -- but none of this prevents an Obama victory, and JTP is soon a footnote in history and a bit of a laughingstock.
Except that wasn't the whole story. After JTP injected the word "socialism" into our political discourse and the right-wing media and tea party Astroturfers spread the virus around, mainstream liberal ideas began to seem sinister and dangerous to a lot of Americans. Part of the reason "stimulus" became a bad word was that it was equated with "socialism"; "Obamacare" was "socialism" (and "Obamacare" is still struggling in the polls, even after the guy it's named after won reelection); fear of "socialism" help drive the GOP takeover of the House in the 2010 midterms.
I'm concerned that the same thing is beginning to happen with the right's "makers vs. takers" meme, with the "takers" described as people who just want "free stuff" from government. It didn't get Mitt Romney elected (and its appearance in the "47%" video may have been one of the biggest contributor's to Romney's defeat), but the right isn't letting go of it. It may poison the discourse for the next few years the way "socialism" has poisoned the discourse for the past four. And this may be worse. It's often being invoked in racially ugly ways. And even when racism isn't explicit, the alleged "takers" are portrayed as lazy, shiftless parasites. The parasites are you and me and everyone who voted the way we did on Tuesday.
Consider Bill O'Reilly Tuesday night as election returns came in:
"The white establishment is now the minority," O'Reilly said. "And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama's way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?"Consider Ann Coulter yesterday on Laura Ingraham's radio show:
"If Mitt Romney cannot win in this economy, then the tipping point has been reached. We have more takers than makers and it's over. There is no hope."I'm worried about this because, while Republicans have been rage junkies in need of anger management for some time now, their rage has mostly been directed at public figures -- the Clintons, Obama, Reid and Pelosi, the Evil MSM. Now every individual Democratic voter is the Antichrist. Every individual Democratic voter is a bloodsucking leech. Ted Nugent tweets, "What subhuman varmint believes others must pay for their obesity booze cellphones birthcontrol abortions & lives." Someone goes to a polling place in Pennsylvania and hangs signs in the parking area that say, "NO PARKING FOR DEMOCRATS - WALK THAT WILL BE THE MOST WORK YOU DO ALL DAY." Ordinary citizens are the new scapegoats, the new people who must be crushed to save America.
Now, of course, a lot of people in Democratic voter groups -- blacks, Hispanics, women, gay people -- are used to being targets of hate. But this is a way for the right to paint a target on people without making an overt appeal to racism or sexism or homophobia. Hate these people not because of their gender or sexual orientation or skin color, but because they are using the government to steal everything you have. Hate the parasitism, not the people.
(As I know from growing up in Boston during the busing crisis, bigotry gets power from pretending not to be bigotry. The anti-busers insisted that the battle was about "neighborhood schools," not race, even as they threw rocks at school buses carrying black children.)
Will calling out the "takers" for wanting "free stuff" work? I don't know. But it's going to be the right's main message for the foreseeable future. And if there's an increasing number of violent attacks in the future perpetrated by people who explicitly invoke this meme, and aimed at ordinary Americans, I won't be surprised.