For Republicans, it does matter how much money you make.
It’s not surprising that Jimmy Kimmel’s touching monologue about his son’s congenital heart disease went viral on the social networks. It was heartfelt and touched upon a touchy and timely subject, healthcare. He also included a noble call for left-right unity and understanding, but he made one wrong assumption.
“If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. I think that’s something that, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?”
Well, actually, no, we can’t all agree on that. A Pew Research Center poll released just this week puts some data behind something I’ve be mulling over for years: Democrats and Republicans have enormously different ideas of why some people are rich and others are poor and these attitudes involve a healthy dose of judgement.
The first time this issue whacked me upside the head was during a heated argument with my brother, a longtime Republican, who felt higher taxes on the wealthy were unfair because they work so hard for their money. This was a long time ago, so in all fairness I can’t recall if I was riled up enough to call him naïve (we say some pretty terrible things to our siblings) or simply pointed out that many of these people were given big advantages in life. I do know, however, that this led me to wonder what this meant in terms of how they feel about the poor. Are they poor because they don’t work hard?
It turns out that my brother was very much in line with his fellow Republicans, 66% of whom think that rich people got that way through hard work and only 21% because they had advantages in life. And, it indeed does follow that poor people are where they are out of laziness, but to be fair, the study uses the toned down term “lack of effort.” 56% Republicans attribute this lack of effort to why poor people are poor rather than circumstances beyond their control, which came in at 32%. On both counts, Democrats flipped the numbers attributing wealth to advantages and poverty to circumstances.
What does this have to do with healthcare? It's the reason why Republicans don't support providing it, or pretty much any other type of government benefits to everyone. Their argument is about fairness, asking why they should pay for the people who aren't working so hard. That's what the Tea Party protests were all about, not wanting to pay for people who got in over their heads with their mortgages and Obamacare was viewed along these same lines, that it amounted to paying for others who are not pulling their own weight.
Pulling one's own weight is certainly a value we Americans all share, but many of us on the left have cringed when we've seen this mostly positive value get ugly. We all heard the shouts of “let 'em die” during a 2012 Republican debate when discussing uninsured people. A Republican friend once growled at me that if people want healthcare “they need to go get better jobs.”
So, we can't all agree that it shouldn't matter how much money you make because for many Americans, it's an indicator of laziness vs. hard work. It is a piece of American culture I've often struggled to explain to folks in Spain, one that's rooted in our Puritan beginnings and, in fact, something that came into much sharper focus for me after I moved abroad. In the U.S. we're squeamish about money, especially the lack of, while in Spain it's exactly the opposite. In the land of the mil-euroistas, people who make €1,000 (about $1100) per month or less, you're kind of considered an asshole if you're not complaining about how broke you are.
At the same time, many Spanish folks, especially on the left, find it naïve think that rich people have gotten to the top by hard work only. There's a pervasive cynicism that assumes that they were given every advantage in the world and perhaps a little foul play was involved. This cynicism can also get extreme and unfair and is an idea the floats around the far left in the U.S. as well.
Wealth and poverty have much to do with the advantages and disadvantages we are born with and to some extent, what each of us do with the hand we're dealt. Kimmel's rallying cry was right on target for Democrats whose hearts bleed for the poor, but it fell flat with most Republicans because they just don't think that way. And whether Democrats want to engage with them or just fight, they're going to need to understand this better.