I’m not sure we are seeing all the sources of resentment against the fabled 47% who don’t pay income taxes. Romney was caught affecting to despise and write off this 47% who, according to Romney:
a) Don’t pay income taxes.
b) Are going to vote for Obama.
c) Are dependent and think of themselves as victims.
d) Can’t be convinced to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Romney said this in front of a wealthy audience and it is tempting to dismiss this attitude as a rich person thing. I think that is a mistake. On the center-right, the resentment of the 47% runs much farther down the income distribution. You see it on the Fox News business shows that are mostly about complaining about Obama and regulation. You hear it from callers on talk radio. The people calling in to complain about the 47% generally aren’t titans of finance. Some of them probably don’t make much above the median. They also tell you their own stories. They work hard. They don’t have a lot of job security. They worry (or are resigned) that they are going to be working past 65. The idea that somebody is getting something for nothing is an insult to the dignity they are earning for themselves every day, and it makes the anxiety of losing it all even more galling.
But here is the thing: Theses callers know it is a lot more complicated when it comes to the 47%. If you just talk to them (or really listen), they know that many in the 47% are hard working parents with several kids or retirees. Their worldview is more nuanced than it seems if you just listen to one call. Most of us blow off steam and say things that wouldn’t withstand sharp critical scrutiny because they aren’t intended to do any such thing. This is an audience that would be receptive to a pro-growth, anti-rent seeking limited-but-effective government message.
The 47% stuff is filling the vacuum where there should be a Republican message of broadly rising living standards. And so Romney, with the confused and self-destructive cynicism that has defined his general election campaign, thought he could get benefit our of repeating the frustrated talk radio caller. One problem is that Romney isn’t a frustrated working or middle-class guy blowing off some steam after work. So he ended up sounding like the love child of Thurston Howell and Willy Loman. A bigger problem is that cynical pols like Romney (and Michelle Bachmann on this issue) end up feeding into this self-defeating narrative because it seems easier than making a real argument about health care or taxes or what have you.
PS: I wrote that Romney was “affecting to despise and write off” the 47% because I don’t for a second believe that Romney believed (or even especially understood) the nonsense he was saying. It was just what he thought his (rich) marks wanted to hear that night. So if it makes you feel any better, it isn’t like he was showing any more respect for his rich audience than the 47% he was dissing.