So I made this kind of pithy observation on Twitter the other day:
I think we need to take back the term “entitlement.” If you pay for a benefit, you are, in fact, entitled to it.
And then I followed it up with this:
A “sense of entitlement” is Mitt Romney saying, “It’s my turn to be president.” An *actual* entitlement is a benefit I paid for.
Yes, I did quote myself just now, but I did so for a reason. Initially, I suppose I was pleased that those comments seemed to resonate with people. A handful of followers (and others) re-tweeted me, and, after posting the same comments on Facebook, I got a few “likes” as well. That, for me, represents as much validation as I’m likely to get on social media.
At the same time, it’s kind of pathetic that the point needs to be made in the first place. After all, I simply used the dictionary definition of the word. An entitlement is something you’ve earned; the flipside of “entitlement” is “obligation”: If I’ve earned it, you’re obligated to give it to me.
What could be more American – more capitalist – than that?
But lately so many of my friends on the left are running away from the word “entitlement” at the very same time they struggle to make the same point I was attempting to make on Twitter and Facebook, saying, in effect: Social Security [or Medicare] isn’t an “entitlement”; I’ve earned it!
Yes. Yes, you have. That’s exactly why you’re entitled to it. That’s why it’s called an entitlement.
Of course, it’s no surprise that liberals run away from that word, because the right has used the term entitlement as a cudgel for the past thirty-odd years. “Entitlements,” they say, aren’t something people have earned; “entitlements” are something freeloaders demand – feel entitled to – the bill for which the rest of us foot. It’s one thing to think of general assistance payments and Section 8 housing that way (though, to be frank, I do not); but it’s altogether different to view things working people actually pay for – Social Security and Medicare, which come directly out of your paycheck – with the same sneering disdain.
Yet the right has succeeded in painting the entire social safety net with the same broad brush. Every payment the government makes to or on behalf of any individual, whether in cash or in kind, is a hand-out, a bona fide European-style socialist welfare state giveaway paid for by them, the taxpayers (because only conservatives are tax payers, apparently), and not by the person on the receiving end.
So even when you’re on Social Security or Medicare, you’re feeding at the public trough. Even though you paid into those programs your entire working life, which, if conservatives get their way, will be a longer working life than your parents’.
This is what happens when we cede the debate to our political foes. For entirely too long, we on the left have let conservatives define the terms we use in political debates, and the media and we on the left have been entirely too willing to accept their definitions. If conservatives decide a certain term – “liberal,” or “entitlement” – has a negative connotation, the media adopts that connotation and left runs from it like scared rabbits.
If you don’t believe me, just recall what happened when Michael Dukakis first ran away from, then belatedly tried to embrace the term “liberal.” How’d that work out for him? The fact is, we’re still reeling from it.
Oh, no. I’m not a “liberal.” I’m a progressive. Yeah, that’s it. Progressive.
But what would have happened if instead of being afraid of the term, Dukakis had embraced it from the get-go, proudly wore the label and defined it on his own terms? Sure, he would’ve lost anyway. That one was a hopeless cause. But he, and by extension, we, would have been the ones to say what it means to be a liberal. Not George H.W. Bush and Roger Ailes.
In the end, you can’t win elections, and, more importantly, you can’t win over the public, if you’re afraid of your own beliefs.