I’m trying to figure something out. I haven’t fleshed out this theory, but it’s been something I’ve been mulling over and seen pop up again and again in all of my conversations — real and virtual — ever since #45 began his candidacy.
By writing about this tonight, even without doing research or polling both sides evenly, or outlining my argument, I hope to at least gather some thoughts and perhaps get feedback on other perspectives or get pointed to resources that can help me. It’s like the charcoal sketch before the watercolor masterpiece. That’s my disclaimer, that I know I won’t be presenting all sides to this, that it will be rambling and unorganized which might be dangerous, but I need to put words down. The other disclaimer? I grew up white, upper-middle class, in a bubble in every sense of the word. But more on that later…
My theory, in its rough form, is that the concept of the American Dream has mutated into American Entitlement.
This country was founded on the basis of individual rights and freedoms — people who were fleeing persecution and wanting to make a better life. I believe our collective past has instilled in us a work ethic and drive and quest for improvement that I do not want to minimize. It is something absolutely intangible, and yet living abroad for several years made me realize that it’s absolutely real.
At some point — and this is where doing some research would be useful — it seems that a shift happened. A shift from putting our nose to the grindstone with the hope that it will be enough, to sitting back and wondering why it isn’t enough, and since it’s not enough, why should I even bother?
(Before I continue: I’m not including the millions in this country (legal or otherwise) who work their fingers to the bone on three jobs to support their families. I’m not saying that those who work don’t “deserve” this American Dream. Hang on, and I think I can explain how this manifests itself.)
I have JD Vance to thank for that last bit — the “why should I even bother” bit. The author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” which I just finished and firmly believe everyone should read, he gives a unique perspective into the lower economic classes of Appalachia America. He states that this “hillbilly” population has essentially given up hope for better, so complacency settles in. This isn’t a judgement — it’s human nature to stop trying when you’re not getting results. When the deck is stacked against you, with communities trapped in an endless cycle of broken homes and drug use and poverty, only the exceptions like JD Vance get out of that loop.
It’s vitally important as it is for us “coastal elites” (even those of us from the Midwest) to understand what’s going on in the middle of the country. It helps explain how #45 got elected — he fed on the fear and anxiety of a wide swath of this country that isn’t doing well, that is feeling that they’re not getting what they deserve and someone else must be to blame.#45 gave us an entire list of “bad hombres” and “nasty women” to blame for America no longer being “great.” He didn’t have to specifically make the connection, “Mexicans are the reason you can’t take care of your family,” but by instilling fear and letting people off the hook with an easy way out (it’s easier to blame outsiders than take a good, hard look at internal societal infrastructure and traditions), he didn’t have to. When he says he’ll save coal mining jobs, despite the fact that there are more jobs now in the US in renewable energy, he was tapping into people’s reluctance to change, to adapt, to swallow the admittedly bitter pill that the world economy is changing. But instead of saying, “we’ll build systems to support you in this transition,” instead it is “they’re stealing your jobs but I’ll bring them back.”
(And no, people can’t just change on a dime, if they’ve been holding a job for their entire lives. I’m sympathetic to those individuals who feel their way of life is being threatened. Which brings me to another point of future research — the parallel plight of laborers at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, as the world moved from horses to cars, etc. We look back now thinking it was a natural technological evolution, but there were individuals involved, who were essentially phased out. Was their political output similar to what’s happening now?)
But that’s not what I sat down to write about. The thought that keeps coming back to me is the other dangerous deviation from the American Dream: that sense that, if I have a good life because I “deserve” it, that means that everyone else has to “deserve” it, too. And, with false logic, that if someone can’t support themselves without help, it means they don’t deserve it.
I can’t find another way to explain the outcry over social services and other, perhaps ironically named, “entitlements” going on right now. That welfare and Medicare and healthcare and education shouldn’t be paid for by people who don’t need it. “Why should I work hard and pay taxes to bail someone else out?”
With every fiber of my being, I believe an “are you fucking kidding me” is the only logical response to this, and that should be enough to make whomever utter those words repent their asshole ways.
But it’s not always assholes who say that, and it’s certainly more complicated. Yes, there will always be those who fleece the system. I’ll argue that the 1% at the top is doing a helluva job fleecing the system we currently have, and yet there’s worry about “bailing out” those on food stamps and those who continue to smoke even though they have lung cancer.
I pay for schools even though I don’t have kids. I pay for roads and bridges I’ll never drive on. Because I pay for the good of the society that supports me as I live my life. Even this “elite” can step out of her bubble long enough to realize that I’ve got it pretty damn good through no doing of my own. Do I work hard? Yes. But I’ve had a leg up my entire life. And now I’m paying to level the playing field so that, instead of someone having to work three jobs to provide for his or her family, one job would be enough and more time could be spent spending time with that family and providing children with a stable home.
Maybe what it comes down to is, I don’t think privilege comes for free. The cost is paying my fucking taxes so that kids who I will never meet can go to school and grow up to ensure this country doesn’t fall apart. The cost is being really uncomfortable when confronted with examples of inequality that I didn’t even know existed because I was in my bubble. Quite frankly, the only bubble I’m concerned about being in is NOT my progressive Bay Area bubble where I’m exposed to more diversity in a single hour than I was my entire life growing up in a small Minnesota town. No, the bubble I worry about — for me and for this country — is the bubble of privilege, the bubble of not knowing even a modicum of what it takes to attain the American Dream, the bubble of assuming everyone can also be in the bubble “if they just work hard enough.” The bubble of entitlement.