Photo: The New Yorker
I have a lot of sympathy for people who commit gaffes. I’ve committed plenty of gaffes myself. And if someone shoved a microphone in front of my face 24 hours a day, I’d be a veritable gaffe machine.But the problem with Romney’s gaffe about 47% of Americans believing they’re “victims” who deserve handouts is that they appear to reflect the prevailing ideology of today’s Republican Party.
I’ve lamented in the past about how frustrating it is that, thanks to the increasing social extremism of one of our two mainstream parties, I can’t vote for a fiscal conservative without also supporting Religious Aggressives. Conservatives are supposed to advocate limited government and freedom, not a government so pervasive that it strips away choice and legislates a particular view of morality (e.g., eliminating choice, limiting “marriage” to a man and a woman). But today’s Republican party has become anti-freedom and pro-big-government in some important respects. And that’s frustrating.
And now Romney’s remarks have revealed another frustrating problem with today’s Republican ideology, one that further marginalizes the party and makes it less likely that a reasonable Republican candidate will ever win the Presidency.
In a brutal New York Times column entitled “Thurston Howell Romney,” the conservative columnist David Brooks calls out this issue:
In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62 per cent of Republicans believed that the government has a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves. Now, according to the Pew Research centre, only 40 per cent of Republicans believe that.
It’s easy to be frustrated by (and worried about) the rise in the number of Americans who receive benefits from the government (here are 18 charts showing this trend). For one thing, it’s depressing that so many Americans need benefits. Also, given the depth of our budget problems, if we can’t figure out how to solve that problem, we’re going to bankrupt ourselves. So Romney is right that this is a major issue and concern.
But there’s a big difference between trying to solve a major economic problem and demonizing those who are on the poorer end of the income scale, which is what Romney did in his remarks. Whether inadvertently or not, Romney blamed Americans who are poor or old for being poor or old. Worse, he framed their financial status as the result of their personal character:
“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
If today’s mainstream Republicans really believe that 47% of Americans fall below the threshold necessary to pay federal income tax because they refuse “to take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” the party is in serious trouble.
There are lots of jobs in this country that need doing that pay wages low enough that the people who do them won’t pay much federal income tax. Entry level jobs across many industries, for example. Retail jobs, local service jobs, education jobs. Most of the people who do these jobs are taking full responsibility for themselves. They’re also doing necessary work, working hard, and, in many cases, being successful.
But to listen to Romney, and many of today’s Republicans, these 100+ million Americans are just worthless freeloaders.
If the Republican party wants to continue to be a mainstream party, which I certainly hope it will be, the party needs to regain its respect for all Americans, not just those who exceed a certain income threshold. And it needs to articulate how it plans to help more Americans exceed this threshold.
The idea of broadening the tax base, and reducing the income threshold at which Americans pay federal income tax, is sound. When people pay for something, they feel a sense of ownership and participation that they don’t feel when it is just given to them. So if Republicans want to argue that everyone should pay something, that’s an idea a lot of the country could probably get behind.
But blaming poor and old Americans for being poor and old isn’t just dumb and mean. It’s un-American. And it’s a losing strategy.
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