THE BLOG

Kicked Out of the Hammock?

02/01/2011 01:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Compassionate Conservatism has crashed and burned. The Thousand Points of Light are Sputtering out. John Calvin is bidding to replace Jesus Christ in the religious lexicon of American politics.

Christ said "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed." (Luke 14:13) But a major tenant of Calvin-influenced Protestantism was that poverty was a punishment for sin and that material success was a sign of virtue.

In that light, notice these two recent political headlines. In responding to president Obama's State of the Union address, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan warned of "a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency."

Watch out, greedy octogenarians, money grubbing cancer patients special-needs kids, and ghetto children asking for textbooks, the free ride is over. You will be tumbled out of the hammock forthwith.

And Glenn Beck has been attacking respected scholar Frances Fox Piven to the point where the says she is getting death threats. The 78-year-old Piven is the former chair of the American Sociological Association. She and her late husband, Richard Cloward, were longtime advocates of a guaranteed annual income and other economic policies to solve the problem of chronic unemployment among the poor.

Beck called Piven and Cloward "the people who you would say are fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system."

Beck also spent seven minutes of his TV show calling Piven an "enemy of the Constitution" because she wrote an op ed for the Nation in which she praised the demonstrations that occurred in Britain and Greece over austerity budgets.

The Center for Constitutional Rights published some of the violent comments that appeared on the internet. They include:

"Maybe they should burst through the front door of this arrogant elitist and slit the hateful cow's throat."

"We should blow up Piven's office and home."

"Big lots is having a rope sale I hear, you buy the rope and I will hang the wench. I will spin her as she hangs."

This new-old narrative arc in American politics -- usually in less violent language -- dates back to the flowering of Calvinist thought in the colonies. Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Boston, notes that Calvinists believe that "God's divine providence [has] selected, elected, and predestined certain people to restore humanity and reconcile it with its Creator."7

These people, the "Elect" were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. "To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God's wayward children? The poor, the weak, the infirm? God was punishing them for their sins. This theology was spreading at a time when the rise of industrial capitalism tore the fabric of European society, shifting the nature of work and the patterns of family life of large numbers of people. There were large numbers of angry, alienated people who the new elites needed to keep in line to avoid labor unrest and to protect production and profits."

The Tea Parties emerged from just such angry, alienated people. The economy is in its worst shape in living memory, but who to blame? There was a sputtering of anger at bankers and such, but conservatives like Ryan are looking in another direction, at all those people in the "hammock" of the safety net. In The Undeserving Poor, Michael B. Katz writes that the poor "offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear."

In the past, the tale of the undeserving poor often gained a great deal of traction. They were folks not like us -- welfare mothers, gang members, poor pregnant teens, or drug addicts

But the list of undeserveds is growing; the hammock is getting crowded. We are seeing the Undeserving Elderly and the Undeserving Ill.

During the health care debate, Tea Partiers in Ohio cruelly mocked a shabbily dressed elderly man in a wheelchair who had Parkinson's disease. The man held a sign in his lap supporting health care reform, and the Tea Party men derided him as a communist, and mockingly threw dollar bills at him, saying he was asking for a "handout." The episode was broadcast widely on the web.

Attacking the undeserveds clearly works when they are not us. But what if they are us? Or if we are afraid we will become them?

Demographics and new technology make that more likely. We are all living longer, and we fear outliving our money and our good health. Once upon a time, genes and luck were our destiny. Now, new treatments keep our cancer at bay, repair our ailing hearts, replace our worn out hips and knees. Are we among the undeserving if we get Parkinson's? Or need new organs or new drugs? Or get cancer? One slip, one medical, exam, one more birthday and we can all be in the hammock.

These new facts offer Democrats a chance to change the narrative arc. We have met the undeserveds, and they are not who they used to be. Calvinist cruelty now is aimed at us, not the other guy. And we are certainly not undeserving.

So a compassion narrative has new appeal. Cut spending, but don't savage those who need help. Don't let "the elect" keep all their privileges while the rest of us pay the piper. Don't hack the hammock, keep it in good repair.

A decent society may, in fact, have new political appeal.