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:
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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:

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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.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Nancy Jones

    I worked over 30 years in the unemployment insurance benefits system, and while I agree with everything else in this whole piece including the quotes, I do disagree with David Brooks’ comments that unemployment benefits and federal disability payments may be a handout that people ride and don’t deserve.

    While in this really tough time to get a job, more and more people who are marginally employable are opting for disability, unemployment insurance benefits are something no one gets for the long term, they are not generous at all, and they do not serve as a support for any kind of lifestyle.

  • Ann Turner

    I agree with Nancy, Phil, on her take re. disability payments. I’ve recently gotten to know well a disabled veteran who served four active tours of duty, was blown up by an RPG, almost bled out, took 2 years to learn to walk again, etc. etc. His disability payment is very, very small, and his food stamps are small. He really cannot work regular jobs at all and cannot drive. And this is how we treat our vets who put their lives on the line? Shameful. I also haven’t heard Mitt speak at all about veterans and their experiences, with both Michelle and Obama have addressed with great compassion.

    • ToronadoBlue

      If you haven’t heard Romney speak about how we treat our veterans, then maybe you should venture out of the liberal media and be more open minded:

      Mr. Romney said he would allow veterans to receive in-state tuition regardless of residency and that he would work with states to standardize credentialing requirements for positions in skilled trades so it would be easier for veterans to find jobs. He said he would encourage credentialing organizations to grant credit for military training as well.
      The American Legion speech shed light on how Mr. Romney might expand government spending in some important areas, such as the Veterans Affairs Department.
      “Right now the VA has a shortage of mental health care professionals. I’ll hire more,” Mr. Romney told the convention. “Any time a veteran is unable to receive timely health care from the VA system, he or she will be allowed to see a Tricare provider at the VA’s expense.” Tricare is the Pentagon’s health-care system for service members and their families.
      Mr. Romney reiterated his criticism of the military cuts that will fall in place at the end of the year unless Congress acts to avert them.
      The cuts are part of a package that stems from a bipartisan deal struck last year to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.
      These cuts would place further strain on “our already stretched VA system and impair our solemn commitment that every veteran receives care second to none,” Mr. Romney said.

      • Phil Fox Rose

        ToronadoBlue, a warning that being obnoxious towards other readers will not be tolerated. You could have just as easily made your point without the rude and misplaced opening line. The previous commenter said only that she had not heard Romney speak on the issue, while she had heard the president and first lady do so. That’s a statement, not an opinion, and if you have information to the contrary, then offer it, which you did. I can’t help noticing that the information is a single piece from WSJ online (not the print edition), about a talk Romney gave to the American Legion, where of course he’s going to talk about veterans’ affairs, and in which he made only a few very small promises. I think it’s a statement of fact that the president, first lady and vice president talk about veterans and their families much much more than Romney, his wife and Paul Ryan do. This has been talked about extensively, especially following the conventions. The Republican Party has chosen a presidential candidate who has no background or particular interest in military or foreign affairs. It chose to to make an almost entirely economic argument. Perhaps in part because bringing up the military reminds people that W started the wars that have caused so much hardship, while Obama got Bin Laden and is ending the wars.

  • stevo

    Was wondering what a “progressive christian” site was like. I see it’s actually democrat party propaganda.

    • ToronadoBlue

      You may be right… haven’t seen any posts on the ‘progressive christian’ sites about the failure of the administration regarding high unemployment, high gas prices, or the massive debt that we’ve been piling up. Not that I really come to the progressive christian sites for for political posts. I occasionally peruse the posts and am generally looking for thoughts of a spiritual nature and am generally disappointed in the amount of Democrat cheerleading/ GOP bashing I see.

      • Phil Fox Rose

        FTR, I never bash or cheerlead. Nor do I have much love for the Democratic Party. But when a Presidential candidate dismisses the poor as a separate dependent class that doesn’t deserve his attention, I think it’s appropriate to criticize that from a faith perspective. As it is when a vice presidential candidate claims Ayn Rand as his greatest influence. And when he justifies his cuts to aid for the poor using religious language, I think that’s worth examining too. I am not partisan. But I do think it’s appropriate to say what one thinks about political issues. FWIW, ToronadoBlue, calling high unemployment, high gas prices and the increasing national debt “failure of the administration” is itself partisan. All three of those problems are things inherited from and initially caused by the previous administration. Would I be a lot happier with the current administration if it had managed to do more for each of them? Sure. But that’s not the same as failure. And neither is it something I would write a piece to criticize from a faith perspective.

        • ToronadoBlue

          Romney is saying that he has to dismiss the dependent class because they are going to vote for Obama no matter what. Unfortunately there is truth to that. There are many people in this country who believe in entitlements and any talk of financial responsibility and cutting spending is going to alienate them.

          And your talk of Republicans becoming the party of “cynicism and division” is not partisan? Don’t be a pot calling the kettle black.

          Problems are inherited by each administration, but when one takes those problems and makes them worse, it is reasonable to criticize that.

          • Phil Fox Rose

            I did not say it was unreasonable to criticize the current administration. But you suggested that my failure to do so was inherently partisan. My point was that I don’t see a big spiritual angle on which to do that and am not drawn to write about it. You are welcome to criticize them as much as you want.

            And it’s an endless loop of sorts to say it’s cynical and divisive of me to say the Republicans are cynical and divisive. Am I then not allowed to criticize? I said in the post that I wished it was not that way, that both parties were putting forward hopeful plans for us to compare. Unfortunately, that is not what I’m seeing.

            As far as your defense of Romney’s dismissal of half the country, and your repeating of his concept “dependent class,” you are nearly alone in doing so. Many Republican pundits and public figures are denouncing it, including even Peggy Noonan — keeper of the Reagan faith who I’ve enjoyed for decades and from whom I am delighted to have one degree of separation. The fact that someone “believe[s] in entitlements” does not mean they refuse to hear “any talk of financial responsibility and cutting spending.” That is condescending and assuming people are driven only by petty material self-interest. Which is very Randian, actually.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Ann and Nancy, I was not suggesting that disability and unemployment are necessarily underserved. Those were David Brooks’ words, and I included them to give his complete thought rather than chopping it, to be fair to him. I do think it’s fair to say that those are the programs that can most easily lapse into becoming disincentives, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help people who are struggling, just that we want to be conscious of those concerns.

  • ToronadoBlue

    Couldn’t hit ‘reply’ to that other thread, so I’ll start a new one.
    Of course you are allowed to criticize ‘cynical and divisive’, but when you say that Republicans are this and ignore the cynicism and divisiveness on the Democrat side, it is very partisan. Would you like me to find quotes?

    And whether or not I’m alone doesn’t mean a hill of beans. I know plenty of people who stood alone and spoke the truth.

    By the way, Seal Team 6 got Osama and I credit Obama for continuing the programs that Bush did in order to get him. As far as who started the wars, it was Bush, the Congress, CIA, and the majority of Americans who were for it in the begininng…. but never the less… let’s keep it on the topic at hand. Thank you for your partisan cheerleading.

    • Phil Fox Rose

      OK, I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth, but just to be clear, you’re saying Bush didn’t start the wars, America did, and Obama didn’t get Bin Laden, Bush programs did?

      And just to make the point again, the Democrats do plenty wrong, and are culpable in most of the messes we find ourselves in. I do like this president. I think he’s a smart thoughtful grown-up who is making reasonable decisions, which is a lot as presidents go. But if you knew me, you’d know better than to call me partisan. But you don’t. You don’t know me at all. You are making broad statements about me and my motivations based on one or two articles I’ve written that you disagree with. Such is the internet. I warned you before when you attacked a fellow reader. There’s a thoughtful discussion in here, which has probably run its course, but lets leave out the name-calling. Thanks.

      • ToronadoBlue

        Phil: “OK, I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth, but just to be clear, you’re saying Bush didn’t start the wars, America did, and Obama didn’t get Bin Laden, Bush programs did?”

        I’m saying that the credit you give to Obama for getting Osama, you should give him the same amount for failing to protect Consulates, Embassies from being overrun and diplomats from being killed.

  • ToronadoBlue

    Your quote above that you are not partisan, I do not agree with. When you say that Republicans are this and ignore the cynicism and divisiveness on the Democrat side, it is very partisan. Would you like me to find quotes?

    You’re right… I don’t know you. But based on the above article I believe that you are partisan. I hope you prove me wrong because I want to learn from those who can see beyond the political landscape. I absolutely hate politics, and I absolutely hate when someone says ‘I am not a partisan’… then does a Democrat song and dance.

    I also hate when someone says that someone is shameful and hasn’t heard Romney speak about Veterans (of which I am a disabled one). Now I sincerely regret being obnoxious, and for that I apologize. I got too angry because after a quick google search I found that speech of Romney speaking to Veterans. It was very easy to do.

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