The Myth of the Self-Made American Why Progressives Get No Respect

Sara Robinson

One of the biggest problems facing the Democrats going into this election is that they’re getting absolutely zero respect for everything they’ve done for the average American over the past two years. Tax cuts, health care reform, financial reform, expanded veterans’ benefits, direct funding of student loans — the list is long, and one that, by rights, should get the Democrats re-elected handily.

The problem is that the average voter has no idea that any of this ever happened. In fact, if you ask most Americans (even a lot of Democrats), they’ll tell you that Obama raised their taxes.

This ignorance is on full display at your average Tea Party gathering, which is full of people who will proudly insist that they’re entirely self-made. “I did it all myself,” they’ll snarl, quivering in spittle-flecked outrage. “I didn’t get any government handouts. Nobody ever did anything for me — so why are all my tax dollars going to support those shiftless welfare cheats who aren’t willing to work like I did?”

The magnitude of the self-delusion is gobstopping. Did Mr. Self-Made Man grow up in a VA or FHA-funded house? Attend a public school or college? Go to school on the GI Bill, Pell Grants, or student loans? Does he claim a mortgage interest tax deduction every year? Does he support his retired parents out of pocket, or does Social Security do it for him? Does his employer get government contracts or subsidies that make his paycheck possible? Does his business depend on a sound currency, enforceable contracts, or reliable transportation systems?

It’s like his rich Uncle Sam, the benefactor whose generous bequests paid his way into the middle class, has been written totally out of his entire life story. Forget gratitude; these social contract deniers insist loudly that none of that ever happened. At all. They pay taxes; but they’ve never seen a cent returned to them for anything. And they write their “self-made” myths accordingly.

Unfortunately, this is just a symptom of a much larger problem, one that progressives need to resolve if we are to prevail in the future. The bizarre fact is that most Americans who’ve made it into the middle class got there with the help of seriously life-changing government investments and subsidies — and yet, ironically, if you ask them if they’ve ever used a government program in their lives, they’re very likely to tell you: Nope. Never. I did it all on my own.

Suzanne Mettler, a professor at Cornell, actually documented this effect in a 2008 study. She asked people who’d been the beneficiaries of 19 specific government programs — including some of the most popular and widespread programs in the country — whether or not they’d ever used a government social program. Here’s what she found:

Pct. of program beneficiaries who report they have not used a government program

There it is, in black and white. Sixty percent of people who get home mortgage interest deductions (one of the most important and lucrative middle-class subsidies going) don’t see this as a form of government help to their households, even though many of them wouldn’t be homeowners at all without it. Fifty-three percent of the people who got through college on student loans — and 40 percent of GI Bill beneficiaries — also think they’ve paid their own freight. And 44 percent of Social Security recipients don’t think that Social Security is a government program — which comes as no surprise to those of us who remember the ubiquitous calls during last year’s health care fight to “get your fllthy government hands off my Social Security.”

What’s going on here? How can so many people receive so much, and yet remain in such obstinate denial about where it all came from?

A big part of the problem, says Mettler, is that some government programs are simply more visible to the average voter than others. The visible ones tend to be the ones that are administered directly by a government agency, and show up in the budgets as clear line items. In particular, the programs that benefit the poor are often right out there on the table, where voters can see them and activists can ignite them into political issues: welfare, food stamps, government subsidized housing, education, Head Start.

But these programs are just a small fraction of America’s overall social spending. The bulk of our tax money goes to other programs — such as the mortgage interest deduction, student loan programs, and military spending — that are hidden from easy public view in what Mettler calls “the submerged state.” This spending is usually done in ways that are not directly visible to voters. A lot of it is corporate welfare, designed to prop up favored industries that are so powerful that no change is possible unless they’re somehow bought off with new profit opportunities or subsidies. These industries have a strong interest in keeping this spending out of the public eye and off the political table, where it might be challenged. An important subcategory includes government-funded programs that are run through private companies, like prisons or pre-reform student loans (or, for that matter, Obamacare). The money comes straight out of Uncle Sam’s pocket, but the beneficiaries never see his hand directly.

The big disconnect occurs because so many of the programs that benefit the middle class fall into this category. Take the mortgage interest deduction. This is, in effect, a subsidy that keeps America’s real estate and building trades sectors in business — and, as we’ve painfully discovered, was also of huge interest to the banks as well. But even though every homeowner in America profits handsomely from this subsidy, most Americans don’t understand very much about it. It’s just a line item on their income taxes. And there’s strong pressure to keep it that way. If the magnitude of this subsidy somehow moved into general awareness, it might be challenged. It would be subject to political debate. And that’s the last thing the builders and bankers want.

The 58 percent of our federal spending that goes to defense is almost certainly the biggest skeleton in the “submerged state” closet. A lot of that spending goes to businesses, large and small, around the country. If you’re a Congress member protecting jobs in your district (including your own), there is absolutely no upside to making an issue out of this. And, again, the beneficiaries are largely middle-class households, who fail to see the very real connection between these “government programs” and their own paychecks.

Mettler argues that any real reform that involves these hidden non-state actors must begin with explicitly making the invisible visible to the eyes of the public. It takes time and effort to bring the machinery of the submerged state up into the light of day, but it’s necessary — and effective. Obama’s effort to restore direct federal funding of student loans was a good example of this. The banks were making billions each year off this program, at the expense of millions of students who should have been getting that money instead. He was able to pull this off because activists and journalists had already spent several years hauling the ugly wreck of a policy up into public view, which weakened the ability of banking lobbyists to defend their position. By the time Obama arrived, they were weak enough that he could demand — and get — a complete end to this lucrative subsidy.

Making the invisible visible is also essential if we’re going to counter the Tea Party’s self-serving, denial-wracked narratives, and open the way for Democrats and progressives to get the credit they deserve for the good that they do. We need to start pointing out, loudly and often, all the covert-but-effective ways that government investment and intervention has made the middle class possible.

Specifically, we need to drive home the fact that anybody who calls themselves an American cannot, in the same breath, declare that they are in any sense entirely “self-made.” This is indeed the land of opportunity. But those opportunities exist only as long as we work together to create them; and willfully denying that is an insult to every other American who sacrificed to make your opportunities possible. It’s like saying your parents had nothing to do with raising you. You’d expect them to be hurt, offended, and angry at your lack of gratitude. The rest of us who contributed to your success aren’t wrong to feel insulted, too.

Progressives know the truth: Nobody in America ever did it alone, for themselves. For the past 220 years, we’ve done it together, for each other. Bringing that interdependence back out into the light and putting at the center of our politics shifts the entire dialogue in ways that can help the progressives over the long haul, in at least three ways.

First, it reaffirms the democratic social contract. From the arrogant Wall Street bankers who still think they deserve bonuses for tanking the economy to the furious white men of the Tea Party, people who’ve convinced themselves that nobody ever gave them anything are justified (at least in their own minds) in deciding that they don’t owe anything to anyone else, either. And as long as they can keep the “self-made” lie going, they’ll also go on believing that they’re totally exempt from the whole social contract on which a democracy runs.

Second: It calls the conservatives’ politics-of-rage game. The self-made myth allows the conservative movement to keep feeding on the fury of aggrieved people who falsely think they’re getting nothing for something, even while they’re standing on a pile of wealth that we helped put under their feet. Setting the record straight on exactly what they did get for their tax dollars removes a lot of the justification for this outrage, and makes them look like the tantrum-throwing spoiled brats they are.

Third: It demands that people give credit where credit is due. Nothing changes until those of us who’ve paid our share of taxes, worked hard and played by the rules, struggled to raise sound families and build decent communities, and served our country at home and abroad start demanding acknowledgment, respect, and a proper “Thank you” for everything we’ve each contributed to make so much mutual success possible. And the real patriot is the one who always makes sure that Uncle Sam himself is the very first one to stand for applause.

Putting the lie to the “self-made” myth is critical to restoring the progressive ideas of common wealth, common sense, and the common good to a central place in our political story. It’s time to hand the country’s real “entitlement classes” the full, complete, annotated bill for everything they’ve received from the government’s hand — and demand that they never again forget to thank the 300 million of us who made it all possible.

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