Is Mitt Waging Generational Warfare?

On Super Tuesday, as Daniel Luzer noted at College Guide, Mitt Romney told a high school student worried about college costs that he’d better “shop around” for low tuitions, and not expect any help from the federal government.

It was rather churlish, but also ignorant, as Daniel explains:

The problem with this is not necessarily that it’s awkward to say “I don’t care” to a student, though surely it was. The problem is that his advice demonstrates a certain foggy understanding about the way American education actually works.

Most people can’t “shop around” for college. About 80 percent of American undergraduates attend public institutions. Most people (about 56 percent of them) go schools within 100 miles of their parents’ house. The problem isn’t that students aren’t shopping around. It’s that all the stores are too expensive.

But Jonathan Chait noticed something else: the crowd listening to this exchange at an Ohio factory loved it.

Chait figures that wittingly or unwittingly (and with Romney you never know if he’s a programmed robo-pol or suddenly just winging it), Mitt’s fishing into the troubled waters of generational and ethnic resentment that seems to have gripped conservative older white voters of late, savagely resenting any government help for younger or darker folk while fiercely defending their own federal benefits:

The glue holding together the contemporary Republican agenda – the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly, the equally fierce opposition to welfare spending on the young, the backlash against illegal immigration, the nationalist foreign policy, the cultural traditionalism – is ethnocentrism. Republicans are defending the shared cultural prerogatives of a certain group of people.

This theory was probably best articulated by Thomas Edsall in an 2010 TNR article which has now been expanded into a book called The Age of Austerity. According to his dystopian vision, we are entering a period when limited public resources and deep generational and racial/ethnic divisions turn the two parties into warring coalitions of tribes, each representing hungry constituencies.

I don’t buy the whole idea, but a lot of it makes sense, and furthermore, explains better than any other theory the continuing anomaly of government-hating conservatives attacking ObamaCare as a plot to steal Medicare dollars from old folks and give it to the undeserving young and poor. What I’d mainly add to that meme is the iron-clad conviction of many, perhaps most, Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries that their government checks and subsidies are earned benefits they deserve from a lifetime of payroll taxes and virtuous hard work, while all those other government programs are “welfare.” This factor also undergirds the efforts of Republicans (it’s not clear yet whether they will work) to buy off senior opposition to their own absolutely genuine and radical proposed changes in Social Security and Medicare by “grandfathering” current and near-term beneficiaries.

I’m sure Mitt’s got a polling memo on all this stuff in his briefcase or his hard drive; whether he’s read and absorbed it is anybody’s guess. But you can expect a lot more of this tactic from Republicans in the future–particularly in midterm elections when old white voters rule.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.