Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Excuse-Making and the 47%

Excuse-Making and the 47%

Photograph via The Nation

If Mitt Romney loses the election—and he may yet win—his comments that 47% of Americans are takers will be seen as a major reason why he lost. But what Romney said is actually a preemptive excuse for losing the race. And it is an excuse that was being wielded by many on the right well before Mother Jones leaked Romney’s fundraiser comments.

In conservative orthodoxy, two things are certain: Barack Obama cannot be credited for an electoral victory, because it would legitimize his presidency, and conservative ideology cannot be blamed for electoral defeat, because it would delegitimize the Republican Party. So there must always be other factors at play. If Romney loses, it will be because of voter fraud. If it’s not voter fraud, it will be because the liberal lamestream media was out to get him. If it’s not the media, it will be because he did not unleash Paul Ryan (a rallying cry eerily similar to 2008’s Let Sarah Be Sarah).

But most of all, it will be because of the moochers who want free stuff. Note that every link in the previous sentence predates Mother Jones’s report. I could produce 50 more links saying the same thing. That 47% of Americans are lazy takers is an old meme, promoted as a response to Occupy Wall Street by CNN’s Erick Erickson, whose other lasting contribution to discourse was calling Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat f*&king child molester.” But as this summer wore on, particularly after Romney’s post-convention swoon in the polls, many conservative commentators made more explicit connections between a taker society and the outcome of the presidential race.

In the wake of the leak, many conservatives, chief among them David Brooks and Ramesh Ponnuru, argued that this analysis was flawed. But many others, from Rush Limbaugh on down the food chain, have urged Romney to stick to this attack. (My favorite, from the National Review’s Michael Walsh, is a comparison of the situation to the Battle of Gettysburg: “neither side was really looking for this fight at this time and in this place, but here it is. And that means going all in.” I will simply note that the Union won at Gettysburg because they seized the high ground—something that Mitt has surely not done—and that going all in with Pickett’s charge did not change the fact that the Union had seized the high ground.)

These conservatives want Romney to stand by his words in part because they really truly believe in them and in part because the very notion of apologies has been banished from the current iteration of the Republican Party. Put these two together and you have this: there can be no apology because there has been no mistake, and because furthermore apologies are for effeminate weaklings who read from Teleprompters, whereas Republicans must project strength and fortitude at all times.

But it is also because admitting that this was a mistake undercuts a justification for electoral shifts that you’ll likely see conservatives continuing to use not just in this election but in future races. The concept of makers and takers is a complex one that deserves discussion, but to proclaim that we’ve reached a tipping point and then ascribe election results to poor people’s government dependency is a dog whistle of sorts. Really, it is an effort to delegitimize black and Latino voters—to discredit the demographic changes occurring in this country before they have even fully manifested themselves in the voting booth.

Many journalists pointed out that Romney’s comments were actually offending many Romney voters, followed by many other journalists pointing out that these Romney voters wouldn’t think Romney was talking about them. True enough, but this isn’t just because of ignorance. As The Daily Beast’s David Frum pointed out, Romney voters know exactly how to interpret these kind of remarks:

[quote]When a politician or a broadcaster talks about 47% in ‘dependency,’ the image that swims into many white voters’ minds is not their mother in Florida, her Social Security untaxed, receiving Medicare benefits vastly greater than her lifetime tax contributions; it is not their uncle, laid off after 30 years and now too old to start over. No, the image that comes into mind is minorities on welfare.[/quote]

In next week’s column, I’ll tackle in greater detail what this “47%” excuse will mean for the future of the Republican Party if Romney loses. But when it comes to assigning blame—and again, the caveat is that Romney may still pull out a victory—there’s no doubt Romney himself deserves a place high on the list.

He’s had plenty of gaffes before. But this was a gaffe so great it had its own gaffes. Romney was so shaken by the controversy that in defending it he said two things that violated Republican tax orthodoxy and contradicted just about every statement uttered by a national GOP politician about taxes over the last decade. First, he said “I think people would like to pay taxes.” Of course, the GOP’s economic appeals are undergirded in large part by the idea that people don’t like to pay taxes, a feeling the GOP tries to reinforce by obscuring the link between the taxes we pay and the services and benefits we receive in exchange.

Second, Romney said, “I recognize that those people who are not paying income taxes, are going to say, ‘Gosh, this provision that Mitt keeps talking about, to lower income taxes,’ that’s not going to appeal to them.” Doesn’t Mitt Romney understand how trickle-down economics work!? The working class will benefit when the rich get tax cuts! A rising tide automatically lifts all boats!

Normally, these comments—along with Romney’s ludicrous claim, also made at the fundraiser, that he had inherited nothing—might make headlines. But in this week, they had to take a backseat to Mitt’s other screw-ups.