"Then there was the educated Texan from Texas who looked like someone in Technicolor and felt, patriotically, that people of means – decent folk – should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists and indecent folk – people without means. "
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
On This Week With George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday, a bafflegab of Washington poo-bahs including Chris Christie, Rahm Emmanuel, Margaret Hoover, and Donna Brazile — Stephanopoulos calls the segment his “Powerhouse Roundtable,” which to my ear sounds like a Denny’s breakfast sampler, but I guess he couldn’t name it Four Hated Windbags — discussed vaccine holdouts. The former George W. Bush and Giuliani aide Hoover said it was time to stop playing nice:
If you’re going to get government-provided health care, if you’re getting VA treatment, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, anything — and Social Security obviously isn’t health care — you should be getting the vaccine. Okay? Because we are going to have to take care of you on the back end.
Brazile nodded sagely, but Emmanuel all but gushed cartoon hearts.
“You know, I’m having an out of body experience, because I agree with you,” said Obama’s former hatchet man, before adding, over the chyron, FRUSTRATION MOUNTS WITH UNVACCINATED AMERICANS:
I would close the space in. Meaning if you want to participate in X or Y activity, you gotta show you’re vaccinated. So it becomes a reward-punishment type system, and you make your own calculation.
This bipartisan love-in took place a few days after David Frum, famed Bush speechwriter and creator of the “Axis of Evil” slogan, wrote a column in The Atlantic entitled “Vaccinated America Has Had Enough.” In it, Frum wondered:
Does Biden’s America have a breaking point? Biden’s America produces 70 percent of the country’s wealth — and then sees that wealth transferred to support Trump’s America. Which is fine; that’s what citizens of one nation do for one another… [But] the reciprocal part of the bargain is not being upheld…
Will Blue America ever decide it’s had enough of being put medically at risk by people and places whose bills it pays? Check yourself. Have you?
I’m vaccinated. I think people should be vaccinated. But this latest moral mania — and make no mistake about it, the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” PR campaign is the latest in a ceaseless series of such manias, dating back to late 2016 — lays bare everything that’s abhorrent and nonsensical in modern American politics, beginning with the no-longer-disguised aristocratic mien of the Washington consensus. If you want to convince people to get a vaccine, pretty much the worst way to go about it is a massive blame campaign, delivered by sneering bluenoses who have a richly deserved credibility problem with large chunks of the population, and now insist they’re owed financially besides.
There’s always been a contingent in American society that believes people who pay more taxes should get more say, or “more votes,” as Joseph Heller’s hilarious Texan put it. It’s a conceit that cut across party. You hear it from the bank CEO who thinks America should thank him for the pleasure of kissing his ass with a bailout, but just as quickly from the suburban wine Mom who can’t believe the ingratitude of the nanny who asks for a day off. Doesn’t she know who’s paying the bills? The delusion can run so deep that people like Margaret Hoover can talk themselves into the idea that Social Security — money taxpayers lend the government, not the other way around — is actually a gift from the check-writing class.
In the last decade or so I had the misfortune of watching this phenomenon rise within both parties. After 2008, the “We’re pulling the oars, so we should steer the boat” argument dominated the GOP. Offshoots of Ayn Rand-ian thinking about ubermenschen producers and their dubious obligation to society’s masses of parasitic looters provided talking points both for TARP recipients (who insisted America needed to be invested not just in their survival but their prosperity) and the Tea Party. Remember Rick Santelli on CNBC, calling for a referendum on whether or not we should “subsidize the losers’ mortgages” or whether we should “reward the people who carry the water, instead of drink the water”?
The same thinking long ago started to dominate “New Democrat” messaging. Ending “welfare as we know it” was a major initiative of Clintonian politics, and no matter what your feelings about welfare as a policy might be, there was something extremely creepy and moralistic — I might even say paternalistic and racist — about the rollout of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” and its attendant reforms. Rather than simply cut welfare, Clinton made a great show of making welfare moms jump through hoop after hoop just to get their miserable TANF checks, a national shaming ceremony that recalled a triangulating Third Way version of Cersei’s Walk of Atonement in Game of Thrones.
By the time I wrote The Divide in 2009-2010, during a period when companies and executives who’d committed fraud in the hundreds of millions were routinely getting off without even a warning, the welfare bureaucracy had been rebuilt and revamped — supposedly as a fraud-deterrent, but also to make sure check-takers were living up to the standards of puritanical rectitude demanded by check-writers in both parties.
A program in San Diego, “Project 100%” or P100, sent city workers unannounced into the houses of welfare applicants and had them literally rifling through women’s underwear drawers with pencil-ends, in search of sexy clothes, extra toothbrushes, or other signs of a cohabitating boyfriend (for a woman on public assistance must have an empty bed and boring undergarments). Another version of this attitude popped up in the arguments for smoking laws, which were favored more by Democrats, who among other things argued the public shouldn’t have to bear the health costs of those with bad habits.
In the pre-Trump years, there was by tradition a split in public messaging. I’m embarrassed to say I was part of this phenomenon, but it was real: blue-friendly pundits like me snickered at the uneducated, while the National Review crowd sneered at the irresponsible poor.
Then Trump came along, and the media and political landscapes were re-ordered. Now there was no philosophical or political split among America’s wealthiest and most educated people. Both strains of snobbism — one looking down on the unschooled, the other looking down on an economically parasitic underclass — fused, putting wealthy America’s pretensions under the same tent for the first time.
It’s no longer surprising to see people like Frum — an incomparable villain in liberal circles even ten years ago — cheerfully identifying himself as part of the “Blue America” that’s “had enough.” Like Rand’s famous Atlases, they all want to go on strike. American politics is no longer an argument about supply-side economics, or war, or big vs. small government. It’s about check-writers versus check-takers, the book-learned against the dolts.
The former group, the people who say they’re paying the bills, have spent years now trying to let the rabble know there’s a limit to both their patience and their generosity. They’ve made it clear there are limits to how much speech freedom they’ll confer, how much political choice or right to assembly will be permitted, how much ignorance will be allowed to fester. The news landscape has become writer Thomas Frank’s dreaded “utopia of scolding,” with every screen full of finger-wagging Rahms and croaking Brian Stelters telling us how “fed up” they are with others’ inadequacy. This approach not only will fail, it already has, over and over.
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