Mitt Romney can’t seem to move beyond his unfortunate “47 percent” comment, in which he dismissed the so-called 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax as victims who feel entitled to government handouts for food, shelter, and a reasonably humane standard of living. Barack Obama is citing the comment in campaign advertisements. And it’s almost certain to come up at the first of the presidential debates next week.
But the 47 percent argument was a mainstay among conservative media long before Romney made it famous. This faux doctrine divides America into the “makers” and the “takers,” the “strivers” and the “moochers.” It has been rolled out in conservative media as a clarion call to conservatives (rich and poor) to rally to the Republican side in order to shrink America’s allegedly overblown government, to reduce the $16 trillion debt. In this narrative, tax cuts and the radical restructuring (if not destruction) of the social safety net is the only way forward. Any compromise, any balance between raising revenue via taxes and reducing expenditures on everything from defense to Medicare, is anathema to those on the right. The government can’t be trusted. The 47 percent will always have their hand out for government entitlements.
The sentiment appears to be widely held. In a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, 53 percent of those polled said Romney’s comments make no difference to them at all in the presidential election. Is the established social contract of America—that we will honor our elderly, assist those in need, and fight the permanent poverty that is a systemic byproduct of our flawed version of capitalism—now null and void?
A key component of the argument is a basic misunderstanding of who comprises that 47 percent. Romney implied that these folks are lazy and undeserving, always looking for a handout. For too many Americans, the archetypal image of a “taker” is the black welfare queen, or the undocumented Hispanic child who attends public school.
In reality, the “takers” are auto workers, low-level government workers, and women who have been bold enough to fight for affordable health care. They are teachers who serve our most impoverished communities and nonwhite college students who “exploit” nearly nonexistent affirmative-action policies to better themselves through education.
Watch how Mitt Romney defends himself against critics of his 47 percent comment. You won’t hear the truth. What you’ll get are code words and allusions to “takers,” a nifty little political trick he’ll continue to exploit right up to Election Day.