The recent gaffe by Republican presidential nominee Mitch Romney, in which he disparaged nearly half the country as being freeloaders, has certainly prompted a lot of commentary. What it reminded me is that there are a whole lot of people in America who were, to use Ann Richards' line about George W. Bush, "born on third base, and thought he hit a triple". And yes, I'll call this a gaffe, because even though Romney clearly intended the audience he was addressing to get the message he sent, he almost certainly didn't want that message leaking to the general public. Plus, as we've observed, one definition of a gaffe is telling a truth by mistake. To Romney, what he was saying in front of that group of rich supporters, people like him, is the truth.
My own remarks on an earlier speech by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez at the Republican convention made the point that even people who genuinely worked hard and earned the money they received owe a lot more to the rest of their society than they're willing to let on, and a lot more to effective government than they seem to realize.
There are a couple of other interesting perspectives on the attitude of America's rich toward their society and the rest of us. The first is an editorial by Naomi Klein:
I have been noticing, with sadness, that politicians do not even bother invoking the American Dream anymore. They know that we know that everything is rigged against it now, and that the language no longer persuades even the most naive and idealistic; the best you'll get from a politician is a pledge, playing to nostalgia, to restore its lost promise. But what is striking about Romney's remarks is that they have replaced that commitment with a willingness to blame a vast swath of striving, middle-class Americans for their plight.
We thus see a turning-point in American conservative philosophy. This was the moment when the wealthy elite stopped believing its own PR, the self-affirming myth of that economic success can always be had for those who want it and are willing to work. Mitt Romney has told us that it's now simply class war: a struggle to stop the other half getting what "we" have. Thank you for your candor, Mr Romney.
How the Mitt Romney video killed the American Dream
You don't have to be anywhere near the bottom of the heap to realize that this has become true in America. Even most of our so-called "entrepreneurs" of late have been educated people from middle class backgrounds, and often upper middle class, at that. About the only poor people who make it big are athletes or entertainers, and I don't see many of them, either.
The other perspective, and maybe the most profound one, comes from Jon Stewart and The Daily Show:
His conclusion about the rich folks who buy into the idea that they are the job creaters:
If they have success, they earned it. If they fail, the government ruined it for them. If they get a break, they deserve it. If you get a break, it's a handout and an entitlement.
It's a remarkable insight, all the more so because Stewart has certainly made quite a bit of money for himself.
I've been careful here to avoid characterizing this as merely the attitude of Republicans. It's not. As this speech shows, Barack Obama has a similarly disparaging view of his base. He has made that plain enough times that you almost have to willingly ignore it not to see. It's the attitude of much of our political class, because, let's face it, we aren't the ones who give them the money. In the case of many poor and lower middle class citizens, we don't even give them votes.
That's why the outcome of this election won't matter very much, at least in economic terms. We will continue to see the gulf widen between the rich and the rest of us, because neither major party wants that to change. What is worth watching, though, is what our politicians tell us about themselves, and their view of us as well.