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Mitt Romney on How the Other 47 Percent Lives

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Rich Republicans like Mitt Romney because he sees the world as they do. That shouldn't be a surprise. He is one of them, and he doesn't like to pay taxes (not that anyone really likes to). But how he and they see the world seems to surprise a lot of people, as illustrated by how Romney's statements, captured on camera at a May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, have exploded on the internet since they were posted by Mother Jones Monday night.

Here is one of his passages from the fundraiser:

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. 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes, so our message of low income taxes doesn't connect. ... [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. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent who are in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.

When I listened to Mitt say this, I thought, "Wow. You proved my point." As I tried to explain in an essay that was published last week on TomDispatch and reposted on The Huffington Post as "Joining the Reality-Based Community, or How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs and Start Worrying," this is how wealthy Republicans see the world. This is the gated-community worldview that is shared by many upper-middle-class and upper-class Republicans, a worldview formed by affluence and obliviousness. It was the worldview I used to have, back when I was a moderate, business-oriented Republican -- what was once called a Rockefeller Republican and is now sneeringly called by conservatives a RINO, or Republican in Name Only. Even the Republican commentator David Brooks called it for what it is, "a country-club fantasy." But a lot of people buy into it. I did -- until reality got in the way.

What Romney does so neatly here is show how Republicans divide America into a neat dichotomy of winners and losers. Call them what you like -- taxpayers and moochers, makers and takers, whatever -- but this divide is how a great many Republicans see the world. According to this worldview, society's "losers" didn't "succeed" because they didn't try hard enough, because they weren't "thoughtful" enough, because they were -- to use that favorite term -- "indolent," because they were part of a "culture of dependence" that sucks at the teat of government "entitlements." The winners, on the other hand, deserve all that they got and shouldn't be forced to share much of it with anyone else.

It is all a very simple trick. Blame society's "losers" for not having made it into the middle class, then when they or their advocates speak up, accuse them of playing "the politics of victimization." So long as you view the poor as morally deserving their poverty, it's easy to believe that the world and Republican policies comport with your morality. It also conveniently absolves you from having to ask how some people might have become poor or may currently pay no income taxes because they lost their jobs and can't find new ones thanks to business practices or public policies made by or at the behest of the "winners."

Romney's clearly right to say his job isn't to "convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Why? Because "they" already do. But bootstrapping, it turns out, is phenomenally hard. For those Republicans who pierce the veil and start to learn what a challenge bootstrapping can be -- how it takes more than hard work, pluck, and willpower, how a wide array of institutional hurdles block the way for many, and how important sheer luck can be -- their ideological certainty will be at risk. If they, like me, start caring about people as people, they might develop that condition that Republicans snickeringly call a bleeding heart and go off and quit the GOP.

To keep that from happening, Republicans offer two easy solutions. One is willful blindness -- to simply ignore all the modern day incarnations of Jacob Riis and carry on blaming the victims. But for those who know too much and can't shut it out of their minds, there is another solution whose popularity can be seen in Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate: the Ayn Rand plan. Just change your moral code! Embrace Rand's cold-hearted Law of the Jungle, in which selfishness is the only virtue, altruism the cause of all that is wrong in the world, and the losers ... well, sucks to be you. It is little wonder that the Tea Party wing, the libertarian wing, and the elite core of the GOP are increasingly embracing her version of morality.

Perhaps this isn't really how Romney views the world. After all, he's a professional politician on the campaign trail who was at work raising money. But if there is any place where one might presume that he was speaking his own mind, it would probably be at an off-the-record fundraiser where he was surrounded by his own people -- the very rich. Even if he doesn't think this way, he certainly thinks that his wealthy donors do, and his pollsters would know.

And then there are the racial dog whistles in Romney's speech. No matter how much Republicans deny playing the race card by talking about welfare and "dependence," much of the point of talking about it is to trigger pictures in Republican heads. Let's be honest. For most Republicans, the mental image isn't of a lazy white kid in front of an Xbox. The "freeloaders" are always people of color, usually black. (Doubt it? Then why did Romney play the "victims" trope immediately after the "dependent upon government" trope?) It used to work on me.

What is particularly impressive here is how his 47 percent figure -- which is more-or-less accurate about the number of people who don't pay income tax (though many pay payroll tax) -- takes in the number of individuals who are actually on welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid and the like, but then inflates it by including all people who live in a household in which someone receives a government social benefit (49 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal's defense), creating the impression in many listeners' minds that half the country are minority welfare queens and cheaters itching to take money from the rich. This is how you create the fear of race-based class warfare in the minds of financiers who paid $50,000-a-plate in order to keep their taxes down around 15 percent.

To cap it off, Romney deploys another favorite dog whistle -- affirmative action -- saying of his father, "Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot of winning this." It is sad that beyond the obvious implied dig at President Obama's race, Romney may actually believe this. Lots of white Republicans think that they'd have an easier time in life if they were people of color.

In fairness, it is important to note that many Republicans really do hate racism. They see themselves as the Party of Lincoln, in opposition to segregationist Democrats. But still they buy Romney's Republican worldview, and they choose to ignore how dog whistles like these are intended to bait their unconscious, aversive racism, keeping keep them comfortably under the Republican umbrella along with the party's overt bigots.

Romney says it's not his job "to worry about those people," the half of the country he disdains because it will vote for Obama. But if he does become president of the United States of America, his job would be to govern all of America. One can't help but wonder how fit he is for that job, or how much of it he even wants.