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Mitt Romney’s remark that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent on government” points to an enduring divide among conservatives. Those who insanely, self-destructively urge Romney to keep sticking it to the 47 percent are advocating a type of rhetoric that conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal and National Review deliberately abandoned in the 1960s as they sought to build a broad-based political coalition.

In the mid 1960s, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial defined welfare very broadly and the victims of the welfare system—the class of “provident” citizens—narrowly. The U.S., they wrote, “is getting into that classic situation where the provident must pour more of their resources to support a rapidly growing army of the improvident; more correctly the people who are willing to take anything anyone is willing to hand them.”

The Journal ’s conception of the “improvident” included most recipients of federal transfers. The legitimate recipients were confined to, “the relatively few who truly cannot provide for themselves because of unavoidable misfortune or inadequate endowments.” The language was revealing: When the Journal wrote of “unavoidable misfortune” they tended to rule out recipients of Social Security and the soon-to-be Medicare program. While getting old might be inevitable it was hardly a misfortune in itself—at least not to those who were provident enough to prepare for old age. Welfare, they argued, furthered the “Federalization of American life” and weakened principles like “self-reliance.”

Viewing such a broad class of Americans as improvident was hardly a recipe for a winning electoral coalition. And so the Wall Street Journal , along with National Review, began to confine its critique to a narrower segment of aid recipients. By the late 1960s, they began to see welfare as a class war in which welfare recipients (such as those of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) allied with middle-class radicals and welfare bureaucrats against the taxpayers.

The Wall Street Journal and National Review sought to create a polarization in which a majority made up of taxpayers (from the working class on up) formed a broad coalition against the tax consumers (welfare recipients and welfare bureaucrats) and their radical allies. In this class war critique, conservative journalists took the side of the taxpayers against the welfare recipients and their allies. When the class war critique dominated, the interests of welfare recipients were secondary to those of the taxpayers.

In a comment in an editorial feature called “The Week,” National Review noted the attempt by the National Welfare Rights Organization to organize welfare recipients under the banner of “It’s not a privilege to be on welfare, it’s a right.” National Review wrote that some NWRO leaders were anti-American radicals and that they were trying to enlist the poorer members of the black community (which National Review wrote only “sensibly” wanted higher benefits) in order to further NWRO’s broader radical agenda. Commenting on NWRO’s use of rights language, National Review bitterly alluded to the old spiritual, writing, “All God’s chillun got rights, except the taxpayers.”

In the same month National Review published an editorial titled “The Poverty Professional.” The editors remarked, “poverty, it becomes daily clearer, is a legitimate and often permanent occupation. Like steam fitting or accountancy.” About the demand for rising benefit levels, the editors wrote, “Fifty years ago, minimal food and shelter were judged enough; today the poverty professionals expect television sets, automobiles, credit at department stores, Easter wardrobes.” National Review wanted to be on the steam fitter’s side and was trying to appeal to the steam fitter to join the conservative anti-welfare side.

There was another class that fed off of the taxpayers through the welfare system. This was the welfare administrator whose job depended on poverty and the transfer of funds to the poor through the welfare system and whose nightmare was the end of poverty. National Review wrote that for this bureaucrat, “his job depends on poverty: lots and lots of surplus poverty. As a federal careerist, he is rated on his ability to pass out his quota of tax dollars or more.” On the bureaucrats dysfunctional relationship with welfare recipients National Review wrote, “If he does succeed, he may eliminate poverty and with it his job and have to work for a living.”

This view of the taxpayer being attacked by an absurdist welfare system was fleshed out in a furious letter to the editor by National Review contributor Patricia Coyne. She wrote that “Welfare mothers scream with rage when the city regretfully is unable to raise their children’s clothing allotment and all the while their middle-class peers forage at rummage sales.”

National Review wrote that in Massachusetts, a family of four on AFDC and all the associated programs (Medicaid, subsidized rent, etc.) received the equivalent of $7,671.55 a year in benefits, while the average wage earner in Massachusetts received $6,396.00 in wages. A year’s worth of earnings on the minimum wage was $3,338.00. National Review dryly observed that “State Commissioner Robert Ott wants to raise the dole by $1,200.”

M. Stanton Evans pointed out the political basis for hoping that this class war strategy would bear fruit for conservatives. He noted that the U.S. was becoming “a nation of suburbs” and that as Americans join “suburbia’s army of home owners and taxpayers, they develop an antagonism toward Big Government, social welfare plans, high taxes and inflation.”

Suburban taxpayers were quite different from the “provident” mentioned by the Wall Street Journal in 1965. National Review regularly used the visuals and symbolism of the working and lower middle classes when talking about the taxpayer. The jobs described (steam fitter) the activities (rummaging for secondhand clothes), the places where people are described as living (the new growing suburbs) pointed to a socially and economically broad coalition of taxpayers who had in common that they worked, paid taxes, and were being hurt by the basic injustice of paying for those who refused to work, and by the welfare bureaucrats and middle-class radicals egging them on.

The Wall Street Journal picked up the same themes. In January 10, 1967 the Journal published an editorial titled “Welfare Gone Wild” that cited “the whole snowballing range of handouts for the rich and poor, farmers and businessmen, city and state and practically everybody except the ordinary tax-ridden middle-class man.” The Journal avoided mentioning among these special interests the retirees (on Social Security and Medicare) who presumably came from the middle and working classes. The editorial was positioning the Journal toward a politics that was more middle-class oriented, both by including the middle and (presumably working) class as “tax-ridden” and by avoiding attacks on the transfer programs that were most popular among the middle class.

The Wall Street Journal ’s then-editor Vermont Royster wrote an article that set the interests of the welfare receiving poor against the interests of the taxpayer. The occasion for the article was the argument over eligibility investigations for welfare recipients. Royster wrote that eligibility investigations of poor people on welfare was considered a mean-spirited, dehumanizing invasion of privacy, but argued that the IRS was far more intrusive in its investigations of taxpayers’ financial and marital lives.

Today’s “makers vs. takers” rhetoric finds an important precedent in the Wall Street Journal adoption of a formal scheme for this class war in a May 1969 editorial titled “Producers and Non-Producers”: “We are increasingly becoming a nation of producers and non-producers,” the Journal wrote, “with the former expected to support the latter no matter how stiff the price grows.”

This way of looking at welfare drew the line between the working population, regardless of income level, on one side against a fraction of the people receiving federal transfer payments—but not those receiving middle-class entitlements—and their allies and enablers. This was a much more populist and potentially popular approach to welfare than the one the Wall Street Journal had articulated four years earlier. It was a new class-war approach to welfare, in which conservatives took the side of the taxpayers against the welfare recipients and the recipients’ allies, and sought to speak for the interests of the worker regardless of the worker’s income level.

As Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin have observed, “In the course of the 1960s, the imagery of class conflict in America was turned on its head. Liberals—who had been thought of as defenders of the working classes in the 1930s, and who in the early 1960s embraced the cause of the most downtrodden of Americans, southern blacks and the poor—by the mid-1960s were viewed by many as an arrogant elite of ‘limousine liberals.’”

Conservatives, “those ‘economic royalists’ denounced by FDR in the 1930s as the aristocratic defenders of privilege and power—were emerging in the 1960s as the new populists, speaking for the common man and woman.” Isserman and Kazin were writing about the crime issue, but they might as well have been referring to the conservative reorientation on welfare. Conservative journalists had dialed back their critique of middle and working-class oriented welfare state programs and focused their hostility on AFDC and associated programs. They also crafted a pro-taxpayer rhetoric on welfare that was as inclusive of the working-class as of the wealthy. 

What we saw in the recently leaked tape of Mitt Romney’s remarks was a return to that earlier rhetoric—politically unsuccessful as it was morally problematic. And this does not even get to all that wrong with what Romney said, because even that second, more politically prudent conservative class war rhetoric fell short as a reform strategy. The class war strategy of pitting the “producers against the non-producers” did not lead to welfare reform. Railing against welfare may have helped some candidates win elections, but welfare remained stubbornly unreformed for decades.

Conservatives only got the initiative on welfare policy when they put themselves on the side of welfare recipients. Writers like George Gilder, Charles Murray, and Lawrence Mead did not write off welfare recipients or argue that those on welfare did not want to take responsibility for their own lives. These conservative and libertarian writers put themselves on the side of the welfare recipients and against a dysfunctional system that was hurting those it was supposed to help. Conservatives did best on welfare when they stopped writing off the non-working poor. Conservatives of the 1960s were able to find common ground with working-class voters who expected to receive government-provided old age benefits. Conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s were able to craft a pro-welfare recipient rhetoric and policy agenda on welfare reform. That should give Mitt Romney (and the rest of us) some clues about how to handle the 47 percent who happen not to have an income tax liability in a given year.

Pete Spiliakos writes for Postmodern Conservative .

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