Thursday, February 10, 2011


David Sirota:

How aggressively stupid is America when it comes to our debates over taxes, budgets and the size of government? That's been difficult to answer with any precision, beyond simply citing the Tea Partier who famously told his congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare." But now we have some hard numbers to tell us how deep this ignorance really goes.

According to new data crunched by Cornell University's Suzanne Mettler, large numbers of Americans who receive benefits from government social programs nonetheless tell pollsters they "have not used a government social program." And when I mean large, I mean
large. For example, a majority of those who have received federally subsidized student loans, 44 percent of Social Security beneficiaries and 40 percent of G.I. bill recipients say they have not used a government social program....

This, of course, is what Idiocracy looks like in practice -- a nation whose politics is inspired by "greed is good" self-interest, but whose voters often don't even know what "
self-interest" actually is....

I'm not as ready to throw around words like "stupid" and "idiocracy" -- though, obviously, people should be able to grasp the obvious fact that Social Security and Medicare are government programs, as are (to pick other programs used by 40% or more of people who think they're going government-free) unemployment benefits, the GI Bill, and other veterans' benefits. (I actually don't think it's so odd that some people don't see themselves as using a government program when they take, say, a home mortgage deduction or the Earned Income Tax Credit.)

In all cases, I think it's largely a matter of people buying into the dominant narrative. Right-wingers shout at the top of their lungs on a daily basis that everything government does is an unqualified disaster; believers in the social safety net never counter by saying This is a government program! And it's good!

And no, I have no idea how you'd work that message into the narrative -- but until somebody figures out how, ordinary people are just going to construct the obvious syllogism: (1) Government is unrelievedly bad; (2) I benefited from Programs A, B, C, and D; therefore, (3) those programs musty come from somewhere other than the horrible government.

There are other factors at work here: '60s-era left-wing skepticism about government (which to some extent morphed into post-'60s right-wing skepticism about government), as well as a widespread pride in being self-reliant and not taking "government handouts." It's also possible that some people think "government social programs" means just welfare and food stamps.

To liberal wonks, this all must seem like stupidity, or incomprehensible illogic. But liberal wonks never quite understand that most ordinary citizens just don't think very much about the stuff liberal wonks think about obsessively. Nor are most people knowledge workers devoted to relentlessly logical analysis of everything they think about.

This stuff they just half-understand. And the right-wing noise machine is very, very good at supplying its own supplement to that half-knowledge, in an entertainingly emotion-arousing form, while we supply nothing of the sort.

Here's the chart, by the way, showing percentages of people who used particular programs while insisting they use no government programs:


UPDATE: What Aimai says in comments makes a lot of sense:

If you look at what people say when they are braced with the fact that they are on SS, or Medicare, or the GI bill or even Farm Subsidies they will simply say "its my money/I earned it" because the real poison that the right wing has fed people is that no one else pays taxes. Right wingers and Republicans believe that they are the only taxpayers and that everyone else is freeloading off their taxes.

That really might be the crux of the problem.

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