Mitt’s Class Warfare

“Takers and makers”….”lucky duckies”….looters….parasites….those people. There has long been a nasty undertone, some of it Randian, some of it (sorry, but it is) racist, to conservative politics in this country, particularly since the rise of the Tea Party movement, whose moment of birth was a televised rant by a former hedge fund manager furious at “losers” for threatening his wealth. What’s most notable about this strain of “thinking” is its straightforwardly class nature, and its treatment of electoral politics as nothing more or less than an instrument for class domination. I won’t say all conservatives feel this way, but anyone who hasn’t felt it just under the surface of many a Republican speech or Wall Street Journal op-ed or Fox News “discussion” is really just not paying attention.

It’s appropriate that Mitt Romney openly indulged himself in this, the dirty little secret of contemporary conservatism, at a fundraising dinner hosted by a hedge-fund titan. You’ve probably read or heard about this by now, but here’s the most revealing passage:

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….

[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Now we are already hearing from Mitt’s defenders that he doesn’t really feel that way about half the American people, and that his public and private actions throughout his life indicates a sense of compassion and communal responsibility at odds with this stark expression of contempt and loathing for the less-fortunate. Whatever. As an indication of his intentions if elected to president (and as Ezra Klein notes, it’s highly congruent with his actual agenda), it’s just as telling if he feels the need to express these sentiments to supporters. It reminds me of the way cultivated white southerners used to prove their loyalty to Dixie by telling a racist joke now and then.

Indeed, I don’t know whether the greatest danger to Romney’s campaign right now is the video (and there are more segments from it rolling out today) or the “Hell yes!” reactions to it from the rawer elements of the conservative chattering classes. In a more detached way, National Review‘s Daniel Foster is already arguing that although Mitt’s really blundered here, he might as well make the best of a bad deal and make his campaign a debate over “the entitlement state” instead of an “economic referendum” that isn’t going so well for Romney anyway.

It tells you how badly Romney has erred that one of the more eloquent rebuttals to this “takers and makers” talk comes from David Brooks:

This [Romney] comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?

It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. Yes, the entitlement state has expanded, but America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey….

The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.

Who knows, Romney may have inadvertently touched off a debate we really do need to have, wherein we find out who the real “takers” and “makers” are in American society.

But make no mistake, Mitt’s gotten caught in a statement that is impossible to spin away, and that shreds any remaining pretense that he’s just this nice non-ideological technocrat who’s fooled an angry, vengeful conservative “base” into letting him become president. His “Boca Moment” is going to come across as the private report of a class warrior to the people paying for the war. And having dismissed 47% of the American people as hopeless and worthless, he sure hasn’t left himself much of a margin of error.

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.