Paul Krugman’s blog post entitled “From Welfare Queens to Disabled Deadbeats” relates both the realpolitik and the rhetorical irresponsibility of our age. By “realpolitik” I mean good old fashioned preservation of power. By rhetorical irresponsibility I mean the red herring that social programs are the cause of our nation’s financial woes. Krugman writes:
If you want to understand the trouble Republicans are in, one good place to start is with the obsession the right has lately developed with the rising disability rolls. The growing number of Americans receiving disability payments has, for many on the right, become a symbol of our economic and moral decay; we’re becoming a nation of malingerers.
Now I of course (speaking as a blind person) am a professional malingerer. In fact I wake up every day wanting mints on my pillow. I want all kinds of stuff. Public transportation, solid veterans benefits, affordable housing, easy access to disability friendly technology, free wheelchairs for those who don’t have fat incomes—I’m actually something more than a malingerer Senator Elephant, I’m a believer in the good, old fashioned social contract.
I say this having once upon a time been a recipient of Social Security Disability and Food Stamps. I also lived for a time in Section 8 housing. Why? Because I lost my adjunct teaching job largely because I was advocating too noisily for disability rights at the rinky dink college where I found myself fighting discrimination against students with disabilities. The tone deafness of the Elephant Pols has much to do with something that has nothing to do with disability and social services—it has to do with finding a new underclass to kick. Krugman writes:
What strikes me, however, isn’t just the way the right is trying to turn a reasonable development into some kind of outrage; it’s the political tone-deafness.
I mean, when Reagan ranted about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, he was inventing a fake problem — but his rant resonated with angry white voters, who understood perfectly well who Reagan was targeting. But Americans on disability as moochers? That isn’t, as far as I can tell, an especially nonwhite group — and it’s a group that is surely as likely to elicit sympathy as disdain. There’s just no way it can serve the kind of political purpose the old welfare-kicking rhetoric used to perform.
The same goes, more broadly, for the whole nation of takers thing. First of all, a lot of the “taking” involves Social Security and Medicare. And even the growth in means-tested programs is largely accounted for by the Earned Income Tax Credit — which requires and rewards work — and the expansion of Medicaid/CHIP to cover more children. Again, not the greatest of political targets.
The point, I think, is that right-wing intellectuals and politicians live in a bubble in which denunciations of those bums on disability and those greedy children getting free health care are greeted with shouts of approval — but now have to deal with a country where the same remarks come across as greedy and heartless (because they are).
And I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved with a slight change in the rhetoric.
I don’t know what kind of bubble the elephant classes are living in. I suspect its a small bubble which is of course a matter of some substantial irony. But there are lives in the balance. I urge people with disabilities to fight back: don’t become today’s Reaganite “Welfare Queens” in Washingtonian discourse.