Joe Manchin Should Stop Talking About ‘Entitlement’

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been coy about what he wants from the Democratic “reconciliation” bill meant to pass as much of the president’s agenda into law as possible. Other than a number — he wants to shrink the Biden’s administration’s Build Back Better proposal from $3.5 trillion to $1.5 trillion — Manchin has not said much about which policies he would keep and which he would cut.

Manchin does, however, have one red line.

“I’m just not, so you know, I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving toward an entitlement mentality,” Manchin said last week. “I’m more of a rewarding, because I can help those who are going to need help if those who can help themselves do so.”

He repeated the point on Wednesday, criticizing Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who wants a larger bill. “I’ve been very clear when it comes to who we are as a society, who we are as a nation,” Manchin said. “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society. I think we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society.”

I find this incredibly useful, not because it says anything about what Manchin wants, but because it makes clear that this is a dispute over values as much as — or even more than — a dispute over policy.

In previous statements, Manchin used debt and inflation to justify his opposition to spending that went beyond his comfort level. “The nation faces an unprecedented array of challenges and will inevitably encounter additional crises in the future,” Manchin wrote in The Wall Street Journal last month. “Yet some in Congress have a strange belief there is an infinite supply of money to deal with any current or future crisis, and that spending trillions upon trillions will have no negative consequence for the future. I disagree.”

It should be said that Manchin’s case is not very persuasive. Interest rates are low and have been for the last decade. Looking ahead, the Congressional Budget Office expects interest rates to stay low until at least the 2030s. For the government, then, borrowing is cheap and there’s little risk that the additional debt will overheat the economy or crowd out private investment. We can, and should, spend much more than $3.5 trillion, especially since — when spread out over 10 years — that number represents 1.2 percent of our projected national income over the same period.

But the reality of America’s fiscal capacity isn’t the point. For as much as he talks about debt and spending, Manchin’s objection is more moral than it is practical. To say that you don’t want to foster an “entitlement” mentality among America’s able-bodied adults is to make a statement about the proper order of things, as you understand them.

Take tuition-free community college, one of the proposals tucked into President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Where Biden sees a pathway to opportunity for ordinary American families, Manchin seems to see another lane on the road to dependency, to a world where most adults do not have to work to receive benefits.

Indeed, even just using a word like “entitlement” speaks to a particular critique of the welfare state — in particular the view that a capitalist economy will not work without the threat of poverty and immiseration. If the market runs off the promise of reward and mobility, then to reward individuals without work is to undermine the very engine of the American economy.

As with so much of our national political discourse, this isn’t a new idea. In “Free Enterprise: An American History,” the historian Lawrence B. Glickman shows how proponents of “free enterprise” and laissez-faire capitalism used the language of entitlement and dependency to condemn the economic guarantees of the New Deal.

“For the first time in my lifetime, we have a president who is willing to mislead the people on fundamental questions of finance,” Senator Robert Taft of Ohio declared in a 1936 speech to the Women’s National Republican Club, “who is willing openly to attack the very basis of the system of American democracy, who is willing to let the people believe that their problems can be solved and their lives made easier by taking money away from other people or manipulating the currency, who is willing to encourage them to believe that the government owes them a living whether they work or not.”

Or, as Senator Strom Thurmond put it in 1949: “Nothing could be more un-American and more devastating to a strong and virile nation than to encourage its citizens to expect government to provide security from cradle to grave.”

This “hiving of the country into productive makers and unproductive takers,” Glickman notes, “formed the basis of the traditional American belief in ‘producerism,’ the idea that people who made and grew things deserved pride of place in the republic.” In the 19th century, this “producerist” ideology fueled labor and agrarian revolts against concentrated power in finance and industry. The great orator and three-time Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, captured this in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

For conservative opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, however, the makers and takers were reversed. “Rather than an artisan, the maker was now described as a company,” writes Glickman. “The taker was no longer an unscrupulous employer or an enslaver who unfairly took the fruits of labor from the worker but the government, which now did the same through its system of confiscatory taxes and extravagant spending.”

It is this right-wing producerism which, I think, is the most relevant antecedent for Manchin’s fear of an “entitlement” society. Although, in fairness to the West Virginia senator, there was a point — in the very recent past — when his views were the dominant ideological position within the Democratic Party, both a consequence of and a driving force in the neoliberal transformation of the United States.

Ronald Reagan was, of course, an important part of this development. He brought right-wing producerism into the mainstream, captivating the voting public with a simple story of undeserving takers and welfare cheats, social parasites who undermined the “hard-working people” who “put-up with high taxes,” as he put it during his 1976 campaign for president.

Inextricably tied up in race hierarchy — to be white was to be a worthy “taxpayer,” to be nonwhite, and specifically Black, was to be dependent — this producerism was the “common sense” behind the austerity and deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s, from Reagan’s tax cuts to Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform.” Americans would receive a “hand up” — a tax cut or a tax subsidy — and not a “hand out” in the form of direct benefits.

These ideas don’t just fade away, and the extent to which they are recapitulated by the media, politics and, most important, the material conditions of our society, all but guarantee their continued potency, especially when the rising costs of housing, education and health care encourage zero-sum competition for every available advantage.

It is this potency that we see in the present debate, from Manchin’s resistance to an “entitlement” society to a public that appears not to want Congress to renew the child tax credit — a no-strings-attached benefit for almost every American family — in its current form.

We can also see it in Donald Trump’s appeal to broad swaths of the American electorate. Trump, who made his name as a builder in America’s largest city, then leveraged that celebrity in a popular television show that sold him as the nation’s greatest businessman. Years before he entered politics, Trump embodied the producerist ideal of a man who dominates but is never dominated.

At $3.5 trillion, Biden’s Build Back Better plan is more ambitious than anything offered during the Obama administration. If, to win the votes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrats have to scale their bill back to under $2 trillion, it will still be one of the largest spending bills to ever come out of Congress under a Democratic majority.

From that perspective, it might seem odd to speak of the influence of conservative producerist ideology on present-day American politics. And yet, a major ideological obstacle to the social democracy progressives hope to build is this sorting of people into winners and losers, deserving and undeserving. “The myth of opportunity for energetic individuals,” Irving Howe once wrote, “has taken on a power independent of, even when in conflict with, the social actuality.” Joe Manchin, in other words, is not the only American who fears an “entitlement society.”

In which case, the ideological challenge for progressives is to redefine what it means to be “entitled” — to return, in a sense, to that older meaning, where it is the owners of capital who are the takers and the ordinary citizens of this country who are the makers.

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