10/01/2012 12:02 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2012

We Are The 100 Percent

As Election Day approaches, much of the nation must surely be experiencing Percent Fatigue.

The campaign took shape amid talk of the 99 Percent and the 1 Percent -- the divide delineated by Occupy Wall Street that speaks to how more and more of the spoils of the American economy have been flowing upward.

More recently, the 47 Percent joined the conversation, thanks to the now-infamous video of Mitt Romney telling campaign contributors in Florida that nearly half the electorate is comprised of deadbeats who mooch off the government.

Last week, two academics conjured up a handy new cohort, the 96 Percent, in a clarifying op-ed in The New York Times. They cited a Cornell University survey that found that nearly every American at some point in their lives makes use of government-furnished benefits, from federally guaranteed student loans and the mortgage interest tax deduction to Medicare and Social Security.

Permit me to inject one more label into the mix in an effort to bring this cycle to its necessary fruition: In the end, this election is about the 100 Percent.

That's the share of Americans who, in one way or another, depend upon a functioning government and who require an operative spirit of collective interest to address collective challenges. That's the percentage that will absorb the resulting disaster -- though in sharply varying degrees of comfort -- should the ideological extremists who have captured the Republican party manage to impose their vision on the nation.

That vision is no less than the dismantling of government as we have known it in the decades following the Great Depression, an event that featured an implosion of fortunes so comprehensive that it altered basic understandings about the role of the state in American society. It delivered the social safety net, not least unemployment insurance and Social Security, while strengthening the notion that a well-functioning market system requires regulators with authority to intervene in the public interest. It produced a rich legacy of public works, from hydroelectric dams to parks, whose benefits were distributed broadly.

Romney's bid for the White House -- the most intellectually vacuous, mean-spirited and (thankfully) ineptly run campaign in recent memory -- has boiled down to one central idea: The government is just an elaborate welfare dispensary for lazy, morally degenerate people who would rather feast on food stamps than work for a living.

In seeking to cast President Barack Obama as the supposed champion of this model, Romney has eagerly pandered to the libertarian fantasy that the best role for government is no role at all. He has played on the part of the American identity inclined to celebrate our frontier roots while in essence arguing that only losers need government services.

Romney's cynical campaign has been underwritten by the one constituency that would actually benefit from a crippled government: mega-corporations whose profit opportunities would be boosted in the immediate term by not having to worry about pollution limits, public health interests, labor codes or any other impediment to doing as they please. (And, yes, a handful of well-connected executives would profit handsomely, too.)

Actual human beings -- round up and call them the 100 Percent -- would take a hit, either via the direct weakening of services like public schools and public transportation, or indirectly through the fundamental degradation of American potential.

This is not to say that the government should shoulder every burden or seek to solve every problem. This is not to take away from the need for a vibrant private sector, which will continue to be the engine for economic growth and innovation. Rather, it is a simple statement of reality: Whoever you are and whatever you do, you could not do it without a little bit of government every now and again, libertarian fantasies notwithstanding.

Whatever your station, you are not better off in the long term if we allow the ranks of the officially poor -- now 46 million -- to grow while we weaken the social safety net. We are collectively less secure in an economy in which everyone must go it alone.

The entrepreneurs who have built their own businesses ought to take pride in having done so. But no business, not the corner delicatessen, not the largest Wall Street bank, can exist without the schools that have taught their workers how to read and do arithmetic. They could not function without the highways that enable their wares to be transported. They need the electrical grid, firefighters at the ready, and the courts that prevent someone else from merely ripping off their creations.

This all seems so obvious, yet it collides with the Republican narrative in which anything that can't be privatized isn't worth doing, and anything done by government is a waste of hard-earned tax dollars. This is the narrative that will have currency if the Republicans capture the White House.

The wealthiest Americans have long been retreating to fortresses of one variety another -- to gated communities in well-heeled suburbs, to private schools and exclusive social clubs. Perhaps this is the American future, one in which you either amass enough wealth to live inside a private land of plenty, or in which you find yourself staring at the wrong side of a fence, drinking toxin-laden water, sending your kids to crumbling schools and riding dilapidated public buses over pothole-strewn streets to jobs that pay too little to support your family.

Maybe that works for the people who can pay to get inside, some fraction of the 1 percent. Maybe they can still hire enough security guards to keep the disaffected at bay, effectively criminalizing joblessness and poverty while shipping the malefactors off to private prisons.

But what kind of future is that? Not just for the people on the wrong side of the fence, but for everyone else, too? How stable is such an order?

In a shocking new book, "Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress," University of Washington sociologist Becky Pettit finds that on any given day nearly two out of five young, African-American men who lack high school diplomas are incarcerated. Such men are today more likely to be in prison than employed.

She and other experts draw a straight line from the dearth of support for public works to these alarming levels of incarceration: Deprived of quality schools, large numbers of young black men drop out, ensuring high levels of unemployment. Many resort to the drug trade.

Among the 1 Percent, this reality tends to be either ignored or discussed as a misfortune confined to another realm and best addressed through charity, rather than in the context of future American security. That's a problem. How safe should anyone rationally feel knowing that millions of working-age, able-bodied men see criminality as the only viable route to sustenance?

More broadly, how are American businesses supposed to prosper if huge slices of the population are economically marginalized? How can free enterprise work if much of the population is so consumed with finding the money to educate children and ensure access to health care that they are afraid to spend on anything else? The government needs to play a role in ensuring that our most critical needs -- housing, health care, education -- are more broadly available. That's not socialism. That's what has long been the American way.

We are the 100 Percent, our fortunes collectively dependent upon a functional society.

Government is no panacea, but it is the best mechanism for attacking the collective problems that are left unaddressed by the marketplace.