On Wednesday, USA Today published an op-ed with the byline "Mitt Romney" that accused President Barack Obama of presiding over a "stagnant economy that fosters government dependency."
It was a clear attempt to cover his ass after Mother Jones posted the now-infamous video showing the Republican presidential nominee saying—during a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser right after clinching the primaries—that 47 percent of voters will never support him because 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."
Romney's op-ed focused on the fact that unemployment remains stuck at around 8 percent and that 47 million Americans now depend on food stamps. But his original remarks were not directed at government programs. They were directed at people. As Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall rightly observed: "This isn’t about the role of government. And it’s certainly not a comment about electoral politics. It’s an attack on people with deformed personal character. Who make up, according to Romney, half the population."
I'd take Marshall's comment one step further. Romney isn't just judging the qualities of individuals. He's judging the qualities of an entire class of individuals. This isn't a class I recognize, like the working class or the middle class. This is a class, I suspect, that is real to someone like Romney, someone fearful of the idle masses rising up to seize—through legitimate democratic means—the "riches" they clearly don't deserve.
In other words, Romney's unvarnished remarks are the stuff of class warfare. There are the producers and there are the parasites. There are those who give and there are those who take. "Us" and "them." As he described those unlikely to vote for him: "These are people who pay no income tax.... I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Of course, Romney's statement about the 47 percent is based on an misunderstanding of a widely read study by the Tax Policy Center. It found that around 47 percent paid no federal income tax in 2009, because many were too young (students), too old (retired) or too poor (minimum-wage earners). The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or "the stimulus," also reduced tax liabilities. Another thing affecting people's incomes was an event called the Great Recession.
If I were to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, I'd say he first misinterpreted the Tax Policy Center's study, then concluded that there are too many moochers. But that would be naive. Romney probably already believed there are too many moochers. The study, misunderstood though it was, merely reinforced his class bigotry.
It hardly needs mentioning that expressions of class bigotry spell political doom. That's why the power elite tends to swaddle it in the gauze of "equality of opportunity." Economic inequality is OK as long as we all compete on a level playing field. That way everyone has a fair and square chance to rise to the top. As (Republican) Herbert Hoover once wrote, government should "safeguard to every individual an equality of opportunity to take that position in the community to which his intelligence, character, ability and ambition entitle him." Romney continued that custom of rhetorical hocus-pocus in USA Today:
My experience has taught me that government works best when it creates the space for individuals and families to pursue success and achieve great things. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in creating sustained prosperity and lifting people out of poverty. It is why our economy rose to rival those of the world's leading powers—and has long since surpassed them all.
Inspiring stuff. Or it might be if Romney hadn't already burst the bubble of that lofty ideal by suggesting that not only is economic inequality defensible but preferable given that half of Americans—that great throbbing mob of entitlement—aren't deserving of what they have.
Even Hoover knew better: "[W]e have learned that the foremost are not always the best nor the hindmost the worst," he said, and "we have learned that social injustice is the destruction of justice itself." Which is a good thing, because it is the "hindmost," as Hoover calls Romney's 47 percent, who often "throw the bricks at our social edifice."
Romney's call for greater "personal responsibility" might also be persuasive if it didn't feel like a distraction. The real problem is that the game feels rigged to favor people like Romney, and that people like Romney depend on the opiating effects of "equality of opportunity" so that 47 percent of Americans don't start throwing bricks.
John Stoehr's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is the American politics blogger for The New Statesman and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.