Mitt Romney’s attack on the nearly half of America that doesn’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” may not have been “elegantly stated,” as he said last night in his effort at damage control, but it clearly reflected his world view.

For a fuller explanation of the thinking behind his remarks, here’s what Paul Ryan said at the Heritage Foundation in October of 2011:

We’re coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition. Because what we will end up doing is we will convert our safety net system — which is necessary I believe to help people who can’t help themselves, to help people who are down on their luck get back onto their feet — into a hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency and complacency which drains them of their incentive and the will to make the most of their lives.

Dependency was indeed a problem of American liberalism, which is why it was important that President Clinton and the Republican Congress in 1996 terminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the New Deal-era program that sent checks to the poor without expecting them to work. Welfare reform ended that dependency and was such a success that it became politically dangerous in both parties to oppose it, as the Obama Administration understood this year when it was hammered for even considering waivers from the law’s work requirements.

But is a mother of a severely handicapped child being “lulled into a hammock” when she receives help from the government to pay for physical therapy? Is a senior citizen with few assets being “drained of incentive” when he gets Medicaid to pay for a room in a low-cost nursing home? Was Paul Ryan himself making a mistake to accept Social Security survivors’ benefits to help pay for college after his father died?

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about liberals waging “class warfare.” But what could be more warlike on the battlefield of class than dividing the country into “makers” and “takers”? If Romney wins, we’re in for a nasty form of class politics that we haven’t seen in this country since the late 19th Century. But even if he loses, the 2012 election will be long remembered as the year when the divisive and often cruel dimensions of a cramped political philosophy were laid bare for all the world to see.

Jonathan Alter

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonathanalter. Jonathan Alter is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.