Definitely offensive and a stupid thing to say. Romney, as a financial whiz, is supposed to understand that two very different cohorts (people who do not pay income tax and Democratic voters) who happen share the same numerical value (47 percent) are not equivalent. But here he is making this dumb argument. I don’t mean stupid politically (which it is), but just plain clueless. In fact, as I am writing, Jonathan Podhoretz penned an op-ed “Feckless Versus Clueless“. In case it isn’t clear, given the choices, he’s voting for the idiot. That’s fine for the base, I suppose. But Romney also needs to worry about voters who are less rabidly anti-Obama.
The core argument Romney is making is a grand old one that has been stated by aristocrats for centuries: the poor, greedy, undeserving people–the underclass–are taking your money. But it’s hard to go there in the 21st century, especially when you are a billionaire. Plus the actual percentage of federal money spent on the poor is relatively small. So they added an industrial-era corollary, public employees are taking all your money. And to make it a little more contemporary, students are taking all of your money. And who pays for this? The first question is who doesn’t? The answer: 47% of the adult population. And these government dependent zombies are supposedly Obama’s base.
On the one hand, I agree that 47% of the electorate—if not more—will vote for Obama. I also accept Romney’s estimate of 47% of the electorate as not paying income taxes for the sake of argument. But it is a huge leap of logic in assuming the totality of this latter group will vote for Obama. It does not make any sense. There are lots of poor people in red states, many of whom are white, many of whom are Republicans, who do not pay income taxes. They are part of Romney’s base. Plus there are a lot of retirees who do not make enough to have to pay in. Most of them receive at least some of their income from Social Security and they paid into that system already.
There is an entire conglomeration–a mob, really–of people who make up this mythic 47%. When you break it down it includes everyone from the despised underclass to a grandma living on Social Security and whatever savings she has managed to hold onto through the recession. This comment at the American Conservative was great:
My 82 year-old mother is among the 47% who don’t pay federal income taxes. Yet, I guarantee she’ll vote for Romney. One of life’s ironies. She lives on Social Security benefits of $1300 per month, and about 1% interest on $250k in savings (which used to be $400k savings, a lot of money in her day, but she’s been spending it down in this chronic low interest rate environment). Out of that, she pays about $100/mo. in Medicare premiums, and another $90/mo. for a gap policy. The remainder, what there is of it, pays the rest of her bills. Meaning, she lives modestly, and is always worrying about money. My point being, can someone tell me where I can sign her up for the Overly Generous Elderly Benefits? I’m sure she’d sleep much better at night on that plan.
Setting aside the specifics about who is receiving what from the government, the entire foundation of this perspective needs to challenged. I am referring here to the idea that government assistance leads one to vote Democratic. There is no social science or other research available to support this assertion.
In fact, the vast majority of evidence we (social scientists and human beings in general) have accumulated points towards the relationship between government dependence (public housing, food stamps, etc.) and a lack of participation in politics. In other words, most poor folks, with the exception of the elderly, vote at incredibly low rates.
I am not troubled that Romney made an idiotic comment–politicians make them all the time–or even necessarily by the offensiveness of his remarks. It is the promotion of this myth that people dependent on government largesse form a huge base of voters for the Democrats. What about the people pulling in the really big money? I hate to harp on military contractors but what is the percentage of those folks who vote D? I would guess not many. Or how about other businesspeople who are dependent on the Pentagon and other federal bureaucracies to sell their wares?
The bottom line is most poor people do not vote. We have known this for a long time. There used to be an idea in the US, promoted by elites, that an uneducated and ignorant population, a rabble, an underclass estranged from civic life was not only dangerous for law and order but it prevented our full development as a people, as Americans. In other words, general political and civic education were seen as necessary for our prosperity and well-being. What happened?
How politicians, pundits and journalists–to say nothing of academics–can get away with this sort of rhetoric in the twenty-first century is astounding. And, yes, I was greatly perturbed by President Obama’s “clinging to religion and guns” comment as well. Our political class, which is just an extension of our managerial class, is out of touch with everyday Americans and this will only get more evident as we approach election day.