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:
Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between the idle holders of idle capital and the struggling masses who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country, and my friends, it is simply a question that we shall decide upon which side shall the Democratic Party fight. Upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital or upon the side of the struggling masses? That is the question that the party must answer.
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 that, I think, is the most relevant antecedent for Manchin’s fear of an “entitlement” society. Although, in fairness to him, 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, and 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 “handout” in the form of direct benefits.