Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia set off a firestorm when he referred to the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities against voter suppression efforts, as a “racial entitlement.” But inside today’s conservative movement, terms like “entitlement” and its more blunt cousin “free stuff” have become coded language that is widely used to reinforce the “makers and takers” narrative.
Pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly have been railing about entitlements for years, claiming we’re turning into an “entitlement society.” Glenn Beck calls Americans “entitlement addicts… all strung out on freebies.”
Though he didn’t use the word “entitlements” as much, Mitt Romney brought the issue into the national conversation when he was caught on tape talking about the 47% of Americans who are, in his words, “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.”
The speech, intended for a closed-door audience of rich donors, had less appeal with independents, alienating them by a 2-to-1 margin according to at least one poll.
Romney spent much of his campaign juxtaposing himself against President Obama on those entitlements, he just used the much blunter term “free stuff.” One of his favorite stump speech lines went, “If you want free stuff, vote for Obama.”
The comment elicited boos when he said it during a speech to the NAACP convention, but Romney didn’t seem to mind. Once he was back among the conservative brethren, he even bragged about the cold reception he received when he bashed “free stuff” in front of an audience of minority voters.
Unfortunately, as Romney learned all too well, the talk of the 47% and entitlements may have riled up his base, but it didn’t win him the election. Republicans, however, didn’t seem to get the message, at least not tea party Republicans. Rand Paul picked up the baton in his Tea Party rebuttal to the State of the Union, mentioning the “Obama phone” that grabbed rightwing headlines in the days leading up to the election, even though that particular entitlement turned out to be a Reagan-era creation.
Scalia, of course, upped the ante over almost all these issues, by choosing to compare the fundamental right to vote as an entitlement. The idea that all citizens are entitled to vote is not a “freebie”; it’s one of the most prized American values.