Mitt breaks out the V-word

What's the matter with the 47 percent? Romney's talk of "victims" tapped into long-standing right-wing grievances

By Irin Carmon

Published September 18, 2012 8:17PM (EDT)

There is a word that has gotten lost in all the parsing of Mitt's rage at the 47 percent. It's the v-word: Victim. That 47 percent who are with Obama, Romney told the group of wealthy donors, "believe that they are victims" who are "entitled" to government assistance. Like the moocher rhetoric, this is simply a graceless (or, if you prefer Mitt's own take, inelegant) and uncoded rendering of what has become conservative dogma.

The clear meaning, of course, is that these 47 percent erroneously believe that they are victims. The implication is that the real victims are the wealthy people before him, whose justly earned money is being siphoned off for the benefit of these ersatz victims.

In throwing the word "victim" into a complaint ostensibly about taxes, Romney was handily drawing on a long-standing right-wing riposte to "identity politics" -- the critique of so-called victimology. Faced with the argument from black Americans, women, immigrants and sexual minorities -- many of whom Romney would be correct to say are unlikely to vote for him, especially at the rate he and his party are going -- that structural discrimination undermines the narrative of the "opportunity society," the response is to tell them they've been duped by elites into falsely believing they are victims. In other words, the problem is partly in their heads.

From Phyllis Schlafly declaring that Sarah Palin "is not a feminist because she doesn’t adopt the victimology notion of the feminists" to John McWhorter's allegation of a "cult of victimology" among the African-American community, this is practically right-wing boilerplate. But Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the id of today's Republican Party, was the most recent conservative to give this idea full expression. Discussing campus multicultural groups, he said they involved being "brought into a group of people that are – have a grievance against society rather than understand there’s a tremendous blessing in this society."

Later, he clarified his remarks: “It’s not the multiculturalism that’s wrong, it’s the victimology, which has been the core of multiculturalism,” said King. “People are being told that it’s not their fault, that it’s somebody else’s …That’s the excuse path. We need to have individual responsibility, a culture that supports it — that celebrates it — and one that discourages the slackers from lining up at the public trough and accepting the benefits of the sweat of someone else’s brow.” This amounts to the actual Republican pitch to the traditional Democratic coalition, not intellectually disparate from Mitt Romney's secret video comments: It's not your identity we don't like, it's your "excuse path," your "slackers lining up at the public trough."

That, in turn, renders the true victim the supposed supplier of that "public trough" who's being taken for a ride. Corey Robin has argued that "far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette. The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose." Robin says that this formulation has a more "universal significance" than it appears. In this case we can say that even those who didn't have as much to "lose" as the gatherers at Mitt's fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. -- say, a low-income white man -- can find something that feels lost in a world with a black president and sundry other indignities.

Romney's claim last night was that what's on the video isn't substantively different from what he's said in public. This is partly true; he has railed against people who want "free stuff," and those people have been, by implication, black voters and women who demand that their private insurance cover contraception. In July, referring to a speech given the same day to the NAACP, he said:

When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren't happy, I didn't get the same response. That's OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don't stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that's just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy--more free stuff.

And in March, in response to a question about birth control -- the questioner erroneously called it "free" -- Romney said, “If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for? Vote for the other guy, that’s what he’s all about, OK? That’s not, that’s not what I’m about.” This was part of the right-wing condemnation of Fluke, that she was looking for "free" stuff, in this case to supposedly finance another bête noire that has rankled since the '60s -- an imagined wild sex life.

But it's not true that Romney has always accused roughly half of the population of acting "entitled" to "free stuff" out of their unjustified sense of victimhood. When he made his Obamacare free stuff remarks, he again claimed to be consistent: "I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don't give different speeches to different audiences, all right? I gave them the same speech." But revisiting that NAACP speech, however given in bad faith it was, is a striking contrast to the Romney of Boca Raton.

"If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone," he said. "Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way." (Are you rubbing your eyes yet?) "The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent."

Romney went on, "The path of inequality often leads to lost opportunity," saying of disadvantaged young people, "Many live in neighborhoods filled with violence and fear, and empty of opportunity. Their impatience for real change is understandable. They are entitled to feel that life in America should be better than this." (Emphasis added.) What a profoundly different idea of entitlement this use expresses, one that involves a fundamental human rights claim that acknowledges that history and structural discrimination -- and, in the case of women and the disabled, physiology -- means that an "opportunity society" still mostly benefits the same people who were in the room with Romney in Florida.

We know Mitt Romney said these words aloud, just as he said precisely what his donors wanted to hear. We have no idea if he understands them. But we do know that he has no real plan or intention to act upon them.

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

MORE FROM Irin CarmonFOLLOW @irincarmon

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections 47 Percent Mitt Romney Sarah Palin Steve King