Class Warfare

Am I my brother’s keeper? Not if he’s a lazy bum. That pretty much sums up Mitt Romney’s message in the best known clip from a video secretly taped at a fundraiser. You’ve probably heard some of it by now. Romney says that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes (an intentional misrepresentation) and think they’re entitled to live off those who do, and further, that he can not and will not reach them, with the implication that if elected he will not represent them. He says his campaign strategy is to focus on the independents in the middle using emotional appeals, trying to get them to dislike Obama. It’s rare that we get such a verifiable insight into cynical campaign strategy. What’s causing the trouble is hearing some of it coming from the candidate’s own mouth.

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 healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it… my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

If you haven’t heard it, here’s the main clip everyone is talking about:

The line that’s gotten Romney in the most trouble, “my job is not to worry about those people,” is actually not the most troubling part. There, he actually means as a candidate and is saying he can’t win their votes so he shouldn’t try. What’s troubling is the overall tone and message — more how he says it than the words he uses. I recommend you listen to the clip. It’s the starkest class warfare talk I’ve heard in a long time.

Independents who believed Romney was a liberal Republican exaggerating his conservativeness to hold onto the Republican base may think again after listening to this clip. That may be true about some social issues, but what is revealed in this clip is a textbook “country club Republican” who believes that in this American land of opportunity he has succeeded because of hard work and talent, not because his father was an auto executive and governor — who thinks opting to live humbly while at college rather than dip into the trust fund is an experience of hardship — who thinks the fact that his father came from humble roots means he can claim to come from humble roots.

And of course, the inverse of believing Romney has succeeded because of hard work not privilege is the equally fanciful belief that all those who aren’t successful are there because they have not worked hard enough. This Puritan work ethic-based view has for centuries allowed the successful to feel morally justified in not worrying too much about the poor. This is Ayn Rand’s “maker and taker” view of the world that drives Rep. Paul Ryan’s views on the safety net, which I’ve talked about here before. Romney and Ryan are closer than I realized.

Republican David Brooks had this to say in a New York Times column today titled “Thurston Howell Romney”:

Romney knows nothing about ambition and motivation. The formula he sketches is this: People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency.

But, of course, no middle-class parent acts as if this is true. Middle-class parents don’t deprive their children of benefits so they can learn to struggle on their own. They shower benefits on their children to give them more opportunities — so they can play sports, go on foreign trips and develop more skills.

People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation, as a tour through the world’s poorest regions makes clear.

Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I’d put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.

“Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation” — while I would never equate my own experience with that of a minority child in a slum, I know a little about the dark side of this formula. My dad, as I’ve said before, was profoundly libertarian, and my parents were also children of the depression. Despite relative affluence, we never upgraded to “fancy” cuts of meat, and from an early age I was expected to “earn” my allowance through direct compensation for chores. Allowance ended altogether when I was 12 or 13 and I had to start working as a dog walker and babysitter. And when I was 15 or 16 and got kicked out of school, my father’s answer was to kick me out of the house, onto the streets of New York City, because living under his roof was a privilege earned by my being a good student, not a right. (Actually it is a right and what he did was illegal but I didn’t know that, and I actually accepted his reasoning as fair at the time.) He believed this tough love was for my own good. All it really did was derail my progress towards getting the base I needed to succeed in life, causing me to spend a decade more than many people getting that base beneath me. I’m lucky I ever managed.

The other thing that’s striking about the clips is how relaxed and un-stiff Romney appears. While you might argue that Romney was tailoring his comments to his audience, his comfort suggests to me that this Romney is the real Romney and that his stiffness elsewhere is because he is not being genuine. I could be wrong about that, but it seems pretty obvious to me.

What I find most concerning about this clip is not the misinformation about taxes, but the scorn with which Romney talks about half the population of this country. This is about as far from empathy as you can get. It is the opposite of the Catholic concept of a “preferential option for the poor.” Rather than saying, whenever considering the impact of a decision, think first about how the least empowered, the least advantaged will be affected, Romney is saying, they’ve made their own bed and need to be taught a lesson.

I am certain Mitt Romney does more for charity than the average American, and believes that helping people get out of poverty into the middle class is a great thing and I celebrate that work. But the subtext of these comments is that those who are unwilling or unable to take advantage of those opportunities are on their own. That is not my understanding of Christian charity. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food” (Matthew 25:35), not, I was hungry and you didn’t want to enable me so you cut off my benefits for my own good.

What we need, especially in this time of difficulty, is a leader who preaches unity and shared sacrifice, not one who exploits dissatisfaction by trying to pit 53 percent of the population against the other 47 percent.

It’s also bad politics. If it were just that an eighth of the country is struggling, many relying on unemployment insurance and food stamps to bridge the gap until things improve, Romney might be right in saying he wasn’t going to get their vote anyway. But many more Americans have some sense of the concept that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Ridiculing their struggling neighbors is not just morally wrong, it’s strategically wrong.

In another segment, Romney is offering a lesson in the work ethic based on visiting a Bain-affiliated factory in China that was probably a slave labor camp:

The most amazing thing in this clip is that Romney actually seems to have believed the Chinese official when he said the barbed wire fence and guard towers are to keep people out, not to keep the workers in. Seriously? Romney believed it because it fits with a standard country club fantasy: that American workers are spoiled brats while most people in the world would be grateful to earn a dollar a day.

I wrote last week that people want optimism and that, exemplified by the conventions, the Democrats today are speaking in terms of unity and hope while the Republicans have become the party of cynicism and division. This secret video confirms that impression.

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