(CONNECTICUT) — Much has been said and will be said about the video featuring Mitt Romney’s bigotry toward the “47 percent” who support President Barack Obama. Most of the discussion will be about politics, which can be summed up in a word: devastating. This has the look of something that can’t be overcome even with […]
(CONNECTICUT) — Much has been said and will be said about the video featuring Mitt Romney’s bigotry toward the “47 percent” who support President Barack Obama. Most of the discussion will be about politics, which can be summed up in a word: devastating. This has the look of something that can’t be overcome even with the millions Romney has at his disposal. What’s more interesting, for now, is the appearance of a consensus: That this is the “Real Romney.”
If this is true, it would be a refreshing change. Pinning down the Republican presidential nominee has been maddening. He evades specific policy questions; he avoids standing by his ideas; he says he never said what he said. But thanks to journalist David Corn at Mother Jones, we now have video evidence that strongly suggests what Romney believes.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
The horror of government largesse
Before I get to the substance of his claims, let’s establish what the claim is — that those who support Obama do so because they are dependent on “entitlements.” (That word, by the way, is perfectly suited to describing programs that citizens spend a lifetime paying payroll taxes for. You are entitled to Social Security and Medicare. People want food stamps, moreover, in order to eat, not because they feel entitled. But whatever.) Romney said they support Obama in their own self-interest; the GOP’s message of low taxes won’t mean much to them, because they already don’t pay income taxes.
It has been pointed out that Romney is right — and wrong. He’s right that 47 percent of us didn’t pay income taxes (in 2009). He’s wrong about what that implies. They don’t believe they are “victims” or that government has to take care of them. Many are elderly. Others are students. Still others don’t earn enough to warrant a federal tax liability thanks to tax reform laws pushed by Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
And Romney is wrong to imply that 47 percent get more from the system than they give. Even if you don’t owe income taxes, you pay payroll taxes if you work. This is the main revenue for “entitlements” like Medicare and Social Security. And let’s not forget about other forms of taxation: property tax (even for renters), sales tax and “sin tax.” The income tax is just one way to fund the hydra-headed horror of government largesse.
Did Romney drink the Kool-Aid?
So Romney’s claim about the 47 percent is based on nothing. Yet isn’t it odd for a former director of a private-equity firm to make that kind of claim? He’s not dumb; he knows his way around tax law. He surely knows that General Electric and other large corporations also didn’t pay income taxes in 2009. Is he suggesting that GE lacks “personal responsibility”?
My point isn’t that this rhetoric is wrong (though it is false). It can be used for political purposes. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich deployed a variation of this rhetoric when he said Obama is a food-stamp president while he’d be a paycheck president. My point is that this was the foundation for Romney’s campaign strategy: “[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” And yet this is a strategy with no foundation in fact. How can that be?
A successful campaign knows what the truth is even if it chooses to work around it. If you start believing the rhetoric, you run the risk of running into the truth. That’s no way to run a campaign whose nature is ultimately concrete. After seeing the video, I was struck by the possibility that a candidate for president has based his campaign on an ideological fiction.
He might have used the 47 percent to build resentment among the 53 percent, as Gingrich did, but he didn’t. He dismissed them as “victims” who have nothing to offer him. This suggests a personal worldview. This isn’t what someone says when he commands rhetoric. This is what someone says when the rhetoric commands him. For all the grief he has gotten from the GOP’s far-right faction, Romney appears to have drunk its suicidal Kool-Aid.
Romney’s true self
Then again, candidates do say what they think audiences want to hear. So it’s hard to know what a candidate believes, as Brenden Nyhen, in the Columbia Journalism Review, reminds us. He said that Romney’s problem isn’t that he revealed his true self; it’s that the assumption of a true self was reinforced by a video that appeared to reveal his true self:
“The underlying problem is the assumption that politicians have a true self that must somehow be revealed, which has infected coverage of Romney since the beginning of the campaign. Disclosure of a secret video is particularly appealing to people who hold this point of view since it seems to present an unvarnished look at what Romney says when he is not under the scrutiny of the media. In reality, however, people act differently in different contexts. In particular, politicians are likely to present a donor-friendly version of themselves and their views when it is in their strategic interest to do so. It’s useful to know what Romney says in private to donors, but we will never know whether those statements actually reflect his true beliefs. Journalists should resist the temptation to proclaim otherwise.”
It’s true that we may never know what Romney’s true self is. But we do know what he has proposed, and we know that what he has proposed for the federal budget, for instance, is in keeping with the GOP’s political objectives and with a worldview that divides the world between us and them. If there’s anything we know for certain from that video, it’s that someone — whether Romney or his audience — believes that half the country is “them.”
In brief, his budget attempts to broaden the tax base under the guise of lowering taxes. “Loopholes” that generally benefit the middle class would be eliminated to preserve funding for things that conservatives like, such as defense. These “loopholes” include things like home mortgage deductions and earned income tax credit. Getting rid of them amounts to a tax hike on at least 47 percent of voters, or pretty much anyone who works for a living.
And if Romney is telling his audience what he thinks it wants to hear, it’s important to establish who that audience is: elite Republicans with access to the highest levels of political power who may already believe that half of America is mooching on the other half. And if that’s the case, then what we are really talking about isn’t what Mitt Romney really believes; it’s what elite Republicans really believe, which is really no surprise at all.
The real threat to democracy
Conservatism in the U.S. has always had factions that to some degree or another reduce complexity, nuance and paradox to simple binaries of power: the independent and dependent, deserving and undeserving, worthy and unworthy. If you are not a friend, the this conservatism says, then you are an enemy. As historian Alan Wolfe noted in a widely cited piece that feels more relevant now than it did when it was published in 2004:
Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. … Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe that policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes. Liberals instinctively want to dampen passions; conservatives are bent on inflaming them. Liberals think there is a third way between liberalism and conservatism; conservatives believe that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal. …
Romney has raised more money than any presidential candidate ever. He’s saying something that donors want to hear. If this video is any indication, he’s saying that if he doesn’t win, the country is going to be dragged down by the undeserving poor who want to steal from the deserving rich through legitimate democratic means. Someone has to stop them and not just that — someone has to make them pay their fair share before it is too late.
If that sounds like the authoritarian paranoia of the American plutocracy, that’s because that’s what it is. And so this video may not show us who the real Mitt Romney is, but it has done us the service of showing us who the real threat to democracy is.