Deadbeats and Fat Cats: Not the America I Know

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Yesterday Mother Jones posted a video that someone had shot surreptitiously at a Romney fundraiser last May. In it, Governor Romney declared:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that 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. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.…These are people who pay no income tax. 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect….My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Well, we’re accustomed to attacks by one candidate or party on another candidate or party, and we’ve learned to expect a certain amount of exaggeration. If Romney had said that Democrats support too many Big-Government programs that encourage dependency, we could have a thoughtful debate about how much that’s true. If he had said that some people vote Democratic because they stand to gain from Obamacare, that would be reasonable, just as it would be to say that some people vote Republican because they stand to gain from tax cuts. But what he actually said was that Obama supporters as a group would rather depend on government than take responsibility for their own lives. He’s not just criticizing a candidate; he’s demeaning the half of the electorate that supports him. Too bad he literally wrote the book on how not to apologize!

Ever since Ronald Reagan attacked “welfare queens,” Republican candidates have warned that government social programs may be subsidizing a few deadbeats. But to my knowledge, this is the first time that a presidential candidate has described Democratic voters in general that way. To me, the most disturbing aspect of that characterization is its implicit racism, since almost 100% of African Americans are Obama supporters. To describe them as unwilling to take personal responsibility for their lives is to perpetuate a very old racial stereotype. And by “shooting first and aiming later,” to coin a phrase, Romney hits a lot of other groups as well, including the solid majorities of Latinos, unmarried women and young voters who intend to vote for President Obama. Hopefully Romney doesn’t really believe that all these people are deadbeats, but even if he doesn’t, he is willing to reinforce such prejudices among his wealthy donors.

Governor Romney equates the 47% who support Obama with the 47% who “don’t pay taxes.” The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has two good posts on this issue today, by Ezra Klein and Brad Plumer . The percentage of Americans who pay no federal income tax has indeed risen to 47%, largely because of across-the-board tax cuts that Republicans supported. A family of four has to earn over $26,400 to have a tax liability after factoring in exemptions and deductions. The elderly and young families with children are least likely to pay income taxes, but middle-aged people mostly do. And if other kinds of taxes, especially payroll and state taxes, are included, even fewer Americans escape taxation. The shares of total taxes paid are similar to the shares of income received. The richest 1% receive 21.0% of the income and pay 21.6% of the taxes, while the poorest 20% receive 3.4% of the income and pay 2.1% of the taxes. By this reckoning, the lower half of the population is paying roughly their fair share.

But even if we focus on the kernel of truth in Romney’s statement, that 47% of Americans don’t pay federal income tax, it’s not the same 47% that support Obama! People support one party or the other for all sorts of reasons, and social class doesn’t predict party affiliation as well as one might think. A Gallup survey last month found that support for Obama was just as high among college graduates as it was among those with a high-school education or less. Casting all Obama supporters into a government-dependent, deadbeat class is factually inaccurate as well as morally demeaning.

As far as I know, the President hasn’t stereotyped all Republicans as rich and selfish fat cats. If he did, that would be just as unfair. The GOP does have some of those, but it also has evangelical Christians who oppose abortion, poor Appalachians who want more coal-mining jobs, small business managers who would like less government regulation, and many other kinds of voters. Support for Romney stretches from Wall Street to rural Mississippi.

The America I know consists mostly of hard-working, generous people who look at the serious challenges facing the nation and disagree over the best way to move forward.  Some look more to government for cooperative solutions to our problems; others look more to competition and the market. Few are either deadbeats or fat cats.

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