I don’t talk much politics or social commentary here. But I saw something today I want to explore in a little more detail. Something that on the surface doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that has me asking some deeper questions and drawing some fairly strong conclusions.
First, the facts. I had lunch at Chick-fil-a today. I got my food and was looking for a place to sit when I noticed a man sitting by himself in one of the booths, reading a newspaper. I started to grab the booth in front of him but saw that he had placed his suit jacket over the back of the seat opposite him, effectively staking a claim on two tables. There were a few other open tables, so rather than ask him to move his jacket I took one of them.
I looked over at him a time or two – more from curiosity than anything else. I’m not going to make anyone’s best-dressed list, but I’ve bought enough suits over the years to recognize good suits and cheap suits, and this was a cheap suit that didn’t fit.
After a while, he got up, took the newspaper with him, left his trash on the table and walked out.
I hear the word “entitlement” thrown around a lot. Political conservatives like to criticize calls for social justice (including universal health care coverage, green space, and just about anything else that calls for spending money on something they don’t want) as “entitlement” – as though the ideal society is one in which no one gets anything unless they can pay for it themselves, no matter how much they need it.
This guy demonstrated another kind of entitlement: he was there first, so it’s OK if he takes two tables. The restaurant has people who will clean up, so it’s OK if people have to wait for a table until one of them can get to it. And as for those of us who have to look at his trash until they do, hey, he didn’t dump it on us, so what’s it to us?
I’m moving out of analysis and into intuition and speculation, but I’ll bet my paycheck this guy goes to the polls next week (if he votes at all) and votes a straight Republican ticket.
Let me be clear – I’m NOT saying all Republicans are entitled slobs. They’re not. I know a lot of thoughtful Republicans who just want smaller government. I’ve voted for Republicans in the past and might do so again, though I don’t think I can so long as I’m living in Texas. But people like this tend to vote conservative – they’re part of the “angry white men” constituency. Why?
I’ll tell you what I saw today. I saw someone who was angry because he can’t afford thousand-dollar suits. I saw someone who was angry because he drove off in a Jeep Wrangler instead of a Cadillac Escalade. I saw someone who was angry because other people (coworkers, friends, relatives… maybe just people he sees on TV) have things he feels like he ought to have and he doesn’t see any chance he’s going to get them any time soon.
By God, nobody’s ever given him anything, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to vote for somebody who wants to help people who are too lazy or too stupid help themselves.
Even if that candidate / policy / program / law would help him too.
Pundits scratch their heads trying to figure how why so many of the middle class and working poor vote against their own self-interests. Conservatives say it’s because they think they can get rich with hard work and they want policies that will help them once they get there. Liberals say it’s because they don’t want to help people from a different racial / cultural / religious background. There’s some merit to both of those ideas, though more from the liberal than the conservative, I think.
But stronger than either of those is the anger – an anger rooted in envy – over the things he feels entitled to. In his mind, the thousand-dollar suit he wants is just as important as the medical treatment a retired person needs or the safe place to sleep a homeless person needs.
And this is the problem with conspicuous consumption and the culture of celebrities. It paints a warped, unrealistic picture of what a good life looks like. It makes good, hard-working people feel like failures because they can’t have what they see other people having. And that, in turn, makes them unwilling to contribute toward someone else’s serious need or toward shared infrastructure that they don’t get a lot of direct benefits from.
I know, I know – there are a million other explanations for this guy’s rudeness, and any one of them might be true. But this is what I saw today.