When video of Mitt Romney dismissing the “47%” recently surfaced, shockwaves pulsated throughout American political society. Liberal pundits reacted with breathless glee to the Republican nominee’s gaffe, while working-class voters reacted with breathless outrage to the perceived uber-insult. Liberals and conservatives alike asked if Mitt’s misstep meant political suicide, if his comments were extreme enough to bring a crashing end to his campaign.
Romney’s potentially mortal sin was the following statement:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing.”
Accusing such a large portion of working-class and middle-income Americans of laziness and freeloading rightfully offended the masses of hard-working Americans who don’t fall in the ‘top-53%’ income bracket.
Depicting Americans who toil frantically to make ends meet, have seen any sense of personal opportunity fade in an economy torn down by unscrupulous Wall Street bankers, and who utilize government programs to maintain the basic necessities for their families as irresponsible mooches is despicable and absurd. It is the typical victim-blaming of the wealthy who plunder and then chastise the plundered for their misfortune. More specifically, the typical victim-blaming by rich Americans who have seen their incomes soar in previous decades on the backs of working Americans whose wages have stagnated and living conditions plummeted. Quite simply, blaming poor Americans for their plight is generally wrong; it was wealthy bankers who tanked the economy and greedy corporations who have refused to share the expanding profits American workers have produced.
The only problem with the shock and outrage at Romney’s “47%” comments is that the notion of the freeloading poor is nothing new to this presidential election season. In fact, victim-blaming akin to Romney’s comments has been a staple of both parties campaign rhetoric throughout their campaigns. Both candidates have consistently, implicitly and explicitly, excoriated the poor for their own poverty. Both parties’ national conventions contained countless testaments to the rags-to-riches ‘American Dream’—Read: those who work hard will inevitably prosper (see Michelle Obama’s Convention speech, for example).
Both candidates engaged in a one-upsmanship on who champions Welfare-to-Work programs more aggressively—Read: who can claim the trophy of having booted more lazy poor people off of Welfare. And Democrats and Republicans alike have repeatedly deployed the tropes of government ‘hand-outs’ and ‘dependency’. From Paul Ryan’s latest Town Hall rant (“We’re worried about more and more people becoming net dependent on the government than upon themselves) to Barack Obama’s Convention speech (“We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative…We don’t want handouts for people who refuse to help themselves, and we don’t want bailouts for banks that break the rules”) both campaigns have routinely, and without any significant backlash, painted a picture of a lazy, free-loading American underclass.
So what made Romney’s 47% comment different? Why the sudden outrage over what has become staple rhetoric this election season? Romney crossed the line because the latest accusatory insult lobbied at the American poor unavoidably included poor and working white Americans. While it goes unsaid in our culture of ‘post-racial’ political correctness, there is little doubt as to the skin color of the free-loading lower class that politicians and pundits frequently chastise: black and brown. The staple conservative image of the single mother who has irresponsibly had too many children, chooses not to work and lazily weans the social welfare system via food stamps and Welfare—the ‘Welfare Mom’— is undeniably meant to be African American. The bipartisan calls to confront the self-imposed ‘culture of poverty’ that allegedly hold poor communities down is never meant to suggest images of poor white communities, but always poor black communities. Recently, Romney has uncontroversially run ads attacking Obama’s Work to Welfare record stating, “You won’t have to work. You won’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.” Blaming less fortunate Americans for their own poverty and accusing them of lazy free-loading is commonplace from most politicians in both major parties, but it is almost always implicitly targets poor black Americans. But no matter how you do the math—blacks represent around 12% of the American population, and even add the Latino population at around 16%—Mitt’s 47% includes a sizable chunk of the white American population. Victim-blaming and condescending self-help lectures get tossed around regularly and without controversy, but always part of a racist discourse directed at black Americans. Romney changed the tune, crossed the line and provoked outrage when he included white Americans as part of the parasitic poor.
A recent study by Princeton Professor Martin Gilens obliterates any doubt as to the racist implications of the Welfare and ‘hand-out’ discourse. While 71% of Americans polled favored spending on “Social assistance for the poor,” 71% also oppose spending on “Welfare.” How can such a large majority of Americans contradictorily support spending to help the poor but oppose the program that does just that when called by a certain name? In a word, racism. “Welfare” conjures up images specifically of poor blacks in a way “Social assistance” does not. Blaming blacks for their own poverty and labeling them as undeserving of assistance holds public credence in a way that doesn’t fly for whites.
Romney thus bungled one of the classic American conservative political strategies. Scapegoating African Americans as such is tried and true, as wealthy classes in American history have repeatedly used racism to divide and conquer. From the implementation of racial codes in the southern colonies in response to cross-racial uprisings such as Bacon’s Rebellion (in which white indentured servants and black slaves joined forces), to the Republican Party’s infamous ‘Southern Strategy’ of using racism to usurp Democratic control of the South, to the incessant anti-‘handout’ rhetoric of Paul Ryan, wealthy whites have long sought to gain the allegiance of working class whites via racism.
Class hostility from working class whites could be avoided, class solidarity amongst working class whites and blacks could be preempted, and class dominance maintained so long as working class whites blamed their problems on blacks rather than the wealthy. That this strategy remains alive and well today was beautifully displayed in recent comments from the extremely conservative Republican Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham: “The demographics race we’re losing badly…We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” By expanding his verbal attack to whites, Romney inadvertently broke the mold and pissed off the same white working class whose allegiance he needs to be elected.
It is for this reason that conservatives also reacted with disappointment to the ‘47%’ comments. Recognizing that Romney had blundered the classic formula, fellow Republicans quickly distanced themselves from the presidential candidate and many spoke ominously about the comments’ potential effects on his candidacy. Ultra-conservative Fox News columnist Charles Krauthammer laid into Romney:
“He said these are people who consider themselves victims. Now, that’s not a very smart thing to say. It’s not even accurate. And you don’t win an election by disparaging just about half of the electorate. So simply as a matter of appealing to the electorate, the way he put it was about the worst possible way.”
Former George W. Bush speechwriter and Republican Party activist similarly thrashed Romney, writing, “Mitt Romney has just committed the worst presidential candidate gaffe since Gerald Ford announced in 1976 that there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, certainly no populist champion, concluded, “An intervention is in order. Mitt, this isn’t working.” Similar denouncements appeared in conservative publications far and wide, from the WSJ to Fox News to Bloomberg Businessweek. The severity of Romney’s misstep was immediately apparent to all. Accusations of free-loading, dependency, and entitlement are fine in American politics, but extending such claims beyond African Americans and to white Americans is off limits.
Hopefully Romney’s comments do torpedo his campaign and Americans will reject his haughty elitism in electing Barack Obama come November. For the true progressive, however, that is not enough. Progressives must reject the victim-blaming ideology whenever the wealthy use it to justify their exploits, not only when it is leveled at white Americans. Americans should react with the same revulsion piqued by Mitt’s ‘47%’ whenever ‘Welfare Mom’, ‘culture of poverty’, or other popular ‘free-loader’ diatribes implicitly blame African Americans for their poverty. White workers must react with equal outrage when similar conservative attacks attempt to single out black workers as lazy free-loaders. Progressives should demand that Democrats stop using these tired and racist tropes, stop implying that we live in a perfect meritocracy through incessant ‘pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps’ rhetoric, and start aiming their fire at the real causes of American poverty sitting on Wall Street and in corporate corner offices. Mitt’s comments were offensive, but if we continue to allow similar ideology to go unchallenged everyday, elites will continue to thwart the creation of a powerful progressive movement using the great wedge of racism.