Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mitt Romney on the 47%: Inelegant or Enlightening?

With his gift for churning out clunky phrases, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched a defence of his surreal ramblings to fundraisers, claiming that his comments were not “elegantly stated”.  That’s certainly true, but Romney shouldn’t be allowed to explain away his extraordinary statements as some kind of “misspeak”.  In actuality, his comments were highly revelatory.

In case you haven’t read Romney’s comments (revealed by Mother Jones), the Republican candidate outlined what amounted to an election strategy and a world-view, claiming that “there are 47 percent of 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” (my italics).

The inaccuracy of the 47% figure aside (a distortion that any number of chuckleheads in the Republican Party transform into the hyperventilating screech of “Half of all Americans pay no taxes!”, ignoring payroll taxes, state taxes, local taxes and sales taxes, which anyone who spends any money at all pays), Romney’s comments are illustrative of the candidate’s view of the relationship between citizens and their government.  I’ve certainly never met anyone who thinks that they are a “victim”, and people generally prefer to stand on their own feet.

But the fact remains that we live in a world in which people’s social and economic lives are driven by forces outside of their control.  And so it is no wonder that many of them believe that the institution they pay for and whose members they elect should do what it can to make their lives more secure.  That Mitt Romney should take this desire for economic security, the exercise of civic rights to achieve democratic-minded priorities (universal and affordable healthcare, for example), and suggest that people are embracing a culture of “victimhood” or are falling into “dependency” because they have views about how their tax dollars should be spent, is pathetic.  That he should take umbrage at people asking for a responsive government, which respects their needs rather than simply those of the Bain-ites of the world, is insulting.

I wouldn’t normally say that someone’s background makes them unfit to govern, but there is something about Romney—and perhaps it’s something other than his upbringing and sheltered life since—that makes him totally oblivious about people’s needs and concerns.  In a longer video, Romney described visiting a Chinese factory in which people were so eager to work in horrifying labour conditions that the factory had to build fences to keep more people from coming in.  On the one hand, Romney used this example to wax nostalgically about the exceptional-ness of the United States, but his remarks were uttered in a disquieting tone, one which could almost suggest a longing for an America in which workers were grateful for whatever job they could get, and didn’t have the temerity to make demands on their employers—however wealthy and powerful those employers might be—about trifles like wages, working conditions, or benefits.

Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that Romney’s comments create the impression that the candidate “doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits.  Who are these freeloaders?  Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the VA?  Is it the student getting a loan to go to college?  Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare? ... The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers.  They are Republicans.  They are senior citizens.  They are white men with high school degrees.  As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlement explosions are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.”  He went on to excoriate Romney and his party for moving away “from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers.  There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own”.

As if this all wasn’t enough, a new video has emerged, showing how Romney (who already lied about the chain of events which led to the death of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya last week) views the long-lasting and destabilising conflict in the Middle East.  “During the freewheeling conversation” at a donor’s home, Mother Jones wrote, “a donor asked Romney how the ‘Palestinian problem’ can be solved.  Romney immediately launched into a detailed reply, asserting that the Palestinians have ‘no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish’”. 

The “can-do” businessman committed himself to sabotaging the peace process, saying that he would “kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it”.  He described Palestinians, many of whom live in staggeringly poor conditions in Gaza, conditions which replicate the very worst structures and inequities of colonialism, as “not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel”. 

Most Palestinians have bigger worries than the “destruction and elimination of Israel”—questions of basic subsistence and employment which would be immeasurably advanced by peace.  That well-known bastion of left-wing propaganda, the CIA World Factbook, notes that “high population density and Israeli security controls placed on the Gaza strip since the end of the second intifada have degraded economic conditions in this territory ... Israeli-imposed border closures, which became more restrictive after Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007, have resulted in high unemployment, elevated poverty rates, and the near collapse of the private sector that had relied on export markets.  The population is reliant on large-scale humanitarian assistance”.  In other words, Gaza is a time-bomb, the timer on which was set by Israeli militarism.  And our blanket, no-questions-asked backing of Israel (Romney: “The idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinains to act is the worst idea in the world”) amounts to an assisted-suicide programme given these festering, self-inflicted wounds.

Romney is clearly unaware that Israel gained its independence through what amounted to (and was termed such at the time) terrorist activity against the British.  And he clearly sees no problem (in common with the consultants he shares with Israel’s unhinged premier, Benjamin Netanyahu) in loading all the blame for everything that goes wrong with the peace process onto Hamas without giving them any of the power that would be necessary for them to negotiate meaningfully.  The successful peace processes of the recent decades—in Ireland, in South Africa, in Zimbabwe—came when groups which were formerly seen as illegitimate were acknowledged and brought into the debate.  Romney is intent on seeing that no such successful resolution is reached in Palestine, a sloppy mentality which, if applied to our economy, will have equally disastrous consequences on that front. 

I can just see Mitt’s staff gathered around their candidate, frantically trying to coax his foot out of his mouth, from which vantage point stream increasingly offensive and bizarre absurdities.  There are all sorts of reasons why this man shouldn’t be President, and his unguarded and illuminating comments before private audiences have just given us a couple more.

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