It wasn’t always about the hot dogs. Originally, believe it or not, Labor Day actually had something to do with showing respect for labor.
Here’s how it happened: In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.
It’s all hard to imagine now. Not the bit about financial crisis and wage cuts — that’s going on all around us. Not the bit about the state serving the interests of the wealthy — look at who got bailed out, and who didn’t, after our latter-day version of the Panic of 1893. No, what’s unimaginable now is that Congress would unanimously offer even an empty gesture of support for workers’ dignity. For the fact is that many of today’s politicians can’t even bring themselves to fake respect for ordinary working Americans.
Consider, for example, how Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, marked Labor Day last year: with a Twitter post declaring “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” Yep, he saw Labor Day as an occasion to honor business owners.
More broadly, consider the ever-widening definition of those whom conservatives consider parasites. Time was when their ire was directed at bums on welfare. But even at the program’s peak, the number of Americans on “welfare” — Aid to Families With Dependent Children — never exceeded about 5 percent of the population. And that program’s far less generous successor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, reaches less than 2 percent of Americans.
Yet even as the number of Americans on what we used to consider welfare has declined, the number of citizens the right considers “takers” rather than “makers” — people of whom Mitt Romney complained, “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives” — has exploded, to encompass almost half the population. And the great majority of this newly defined army of moochers consists of working families that don’t pay income taxes but do pay payroll taxes (most of the rest are elderly).
How can someone who works for a living be considered the moral equivalent of a bum on welfare? Well, part of the answer is that many people on the right engage in word games: They talk about how someone doesn’t pay income taxes, and hope that their listeners fail to notice the word “income” and forget about all the other taxes lower-income working Americans pay.
But it is also true that modern America, while it has pretty much eliminated traditional welfare, does have other programs designed to help the less well-off — notably the earned-income tax credit, food stamps and Medicaid. The majority of these programs’ beneficiaries are either children, the elderly or working adults — this is true by definition for the tax credit, which only supplements earned income, and turns out in practice to be true of the other programs. So if you consider someone who works hard trying to make ends meet, but also gets some help from the government, a “taker,” you’re going to have contempt for a very large number of American workers and their families.
Oh, and just wait until Obamacare kicks in, and millions more working Americans start receiving subsidies to help them purchase health insurance.
You might ask why we should provide any aid to working Americans — after all, they aren’t completely destitute. But the fact is that economic inequality has soared over the past few decades, and while a handful of people have stratospheric incomes, a far larger number of Americans find that no matter how hard they work, they can’t afford the basics of a middle-class existence — health insurance in particular, but even putting food on the table can be a problem. Saying that they can use some help shouldn’t make us think any less of them, and it certainly shouldn’t reduce the respect we grant to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules.
But obviously that’s not the way everyone sees it. In particular, there are evidently a lot of wealthy people in America who consider anyone who isn’t wealthy a loser — an attitude that has clearly gotten stronger as the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else has widened. And such people have a lot of friends in Washington.
So, this time around will we be hearing anything from Cantor and his colleagues suggesting that they actually do respect people who work for a living?
Maybe. But the one thing we’ll know for sure is that they don’t mean it.
David Brooks is a columnist for a New York Times whose work is syndicated nationally.