The most consequential aspect, and the one primarily being discussed, is the contempt Romney expressed for nearly half of his fellow Americans, and uncritically for all of President Obama’s supporters, calling them, in effect, lazy moochers who can’t be persuaded, under any circumstances, to take responsibility for their own lives or be productive members of society. This false generalization is not merely offensive in principle, though it is certainly that; it is not merely terrible electoral tactics likely to turn off the very swing voters Romney is focused on, though it is certainly that, as well; it is also a judgment, which Romney can never un-say, that would likely make it impossible for Romney to lead this country were he to be elected. Consider President Obama’s words in Grant Park, Chicago, on Election Night in 2008:
”…while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.¹ As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.’ And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.”How can we imagine a President Romney saying anything similar (and having anyone believe him) after having written off half the country as not only unprincipled, but intransigently so? And having characterized half the country as, in effect, undeserving and incorrigibly selfish children, how could we hope his approach to governing would be anything other than punitive and authoritarian? This is not just about socioeconomic prejudice, though it is about that in spades; it is also about the fundamental conservative vision of government as a process of identifying and correcting moral deficiencies: what George Lakoff calls the strict father model.
Ironically, I suspect one of the reasons some conservatives are terrified of government is that this authoritarian vision of government as a moral “corrections officer” is the only model they have. In fact, though, that’s not, and never has been, how our government actually operates, and it’s hard to see how a man who has articulated such a paternalistic view of half our population could be an effective president.
But in addition to revealing a paternalistic contempt for a huge fraction of the people he seeks to lead, Romney’s comments also reveal a sloppy and innumerate mind: 47 percent is probably a reasonable estimate of the number of voters who are committed to voting for the president, and who are beyond persuasion to do otherwise. 47 percent is also the characteristic number that’s been consistently thrown around on the right as the proportion of the population that “doesn’t pay any taxes.” Now, there are lots of reasons to criticize that assertion, but that number is a persistent and popular meme in the right-wing blogosphere and Facebookosphere.
What Mitt Romney appears to have done is seize on 47 percent to conflate what are actually two distinct populations: The 47 percent who don’t pay federal income tax are not the lazy slackers Romney caricatures them as, of course, but they are also not the same as the group of people who are committed to voting for the president, no matter that they share a number. For one thing, it’s 47 percent² of Americans who don’t pay income tax, but 47 percent of voters who are undissuadably committed to supporting the president. As much as we may wish it were otherwise, the population of registered voters is smaller than the population of eligible voters, and that, in turn, is smaller than the whole American population. My own admittedly anecdotal experience is that no small number of President Obama’s supporters — who not only vote for him but devote no small amount of time and treasure advocating for his reelection — are solidly in the tax-paying classes, while many Republican voters likely fall into the group that doesn’t pay income tax (e.g., many conservative senior citizens don’t pay taxes, due to the nontaxability of Social Security benefits and special tax deductions available to the elderly).
That Romney has apparently confused these two distinct groups based on a numerical (shall we say, numerological?) coincidence does not speak well for his possession of the analytical powers we expect of an American leader. I don’t imagine Romney is stupid, mind you, but a sloppy comment like this suggests he may be intellectually lazy. Or perhaps he just doesn’t think “the 47 percent” deserve his consideration? If his contempt for the struggles of working people and the poor didn’t already disqualify him for leadership, his disinclination to even think hard about their struggles surely ought to. No matter what Rick Santorum thinks about “elite, smart people,” I think that’s who most of us want in the Oval Office.
The third aspect of this — Romney’s assertion that “my job is not to worry about those people. …” — may not be quite as awful as it sounds. Remember that this was a campaign fundraiser, and he was talking campaign strategy. If what he really meant was, “my job [as a candidate] is not to worry about those people [who aren’t going to vote for me anyway]”… well, every serious candidate for office has said the same thing (or has had a campaign manager or consultant say it too them) at some point in every serious campaign. It is a truism of politics that before your platform, no matter how noble, can become policy, you must first win. So noting that a campaign can’t afford to spend time and resources talking to the unpersuadable is just smart electoral strategy.
It would, of course, be easier to credit that motivation to Romney if he hadn’t followed that sentence with “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives [emphasis added]”… which gets us right back into the realm of strict father contempt.
So maybe this part, too, really is as bad as it sounds, after all.
¹ I anticipate the rejoinder that President Obama has not, in fact, healed those divides; I submit that it hasn’t been for lack of “determination” to do so. Indeed, many of his own partisans complain that the president has invested too much of his political capital on bridging divides, even after it was clear there was nobody on the opposite bank also interested in bridge building.
² Actually, a little more than 46 percent, but the right seems to be good at rounding up instead of rounding off.