Since when did Social Security and Medicare make us an "entitlement state"?
Stephen Young's commentary "What Obama believes is divisive" (Jan. 24) points to a real problem in American political discourse and the media coverage that supports it: that is, the often blindly accepted and automatically repeated assumption of a political center -- a largely mythical oasis of common values, shared vision and "moderate" approaches to public policy.
Of course, political compromises are routinely made, and Obama is, in fact, accused by many of his supporters of being too compromising. But compromise doesn't result from the sharing of a centrist political philosophy. Rather it's a bargain in which some things are traded for others, among factions that remain opposed after the deal is struck.
Young is right to observe that we are a divided nation. As a colonial nation of immigrants, with a legacy of conquest, slavery and manifest destiny, our society reflects many differences of experience, outlook and philosophy historically tied to geography, ethnicity, religion and gender. Our differences run along a complex and multi-layered spectrum, and it is difficult to identify any set of social philosophies or political programs that clearly constitute a political center.
In his inaugural address, the president emphasized a particular trajectory of American history, making his case for a set of American ideals by which to move forward. Young, and others, quickly contested his proposition. David Brooks of the New York Times described Obama's speech as an "argument for a pragmatic and patriotic progressivism," and noted that he "made his case beautifully," but immediately identified it as only the "beginning of the debate."
Yet in characterizing this division among Americans, Young runs off the tracks. In a rhetorical sleight of hand, he conflates the specific origin and meaning of "entitlement" programs -- those government-backed social insurance plans (Social Security and Medicare) into which citizens contribute payroll taxes and from which they are then "entitled" to benefit when they can no longer work -- with a vague, generalized notion of an "entitlement ideology," and suggests that the great American divide is between those favoring an "entitlement state" and those favoring self-reliance.
It is only after confusing support for certain specific programs like Social Security with promotion of an "entitlement state" that Young is able to accuse half the country of demanding their livelihood from their "neighbors or from the state" (echoing Mitt Romney's accusation that 47 percent of Americans seek dependence on others). It is only through such rhetorical slippage that he is able to ask the question, "Why am I entitled to something that is yours?"
Young conveniently ignores the fact that millions of those Americans he identifies as on the side of "self-reliance" also favor programs like Social Security and Medicare, because they offer hard-working citizens some security when they become disabled or elderly. Distorting support for specific, historically self-funded safety net programs into a globalized desire for an "entitlement state" is an intellectually dishonest gambit designed to make the term entitlement a pejorative and to create a false single-issue dichotomy in political discourse.
The political center in the U.S. may be an abstraction without a real membership, but political differences among Americans remain complex, overlapping and often contradictory across a broad and varied political spectrum. Contrary to Mr. Young and Romney's perceptions, there is not a simple split in America between industrious, self-reliant individuals, on the one hand, and freeloaders seeking access to government entitlements, on the other. This is merely political rhetoric.
Michael Griffin teaches media studies at Macalester College and serves on the board of the International Communication Association.