Mitt Romney's statements claiming about half of Americans "believe they are victims" are, obviously, disgusting, and there's no shortage of superficial punditry saying so ad nauseam. However, left unsaid are two truths: 1) The central assertion beneath his extrapolative insults -- namely, that about half of Americans are "dependent upon government" -- is not wrong, and 2) the ugly demagoguery he addresses such a fact with is, unfortunately, not necessarily a losing political proposition for him.
First the facts: Romney is not only correct that many Americans are "dependent upon government," he's almost certainly understating the truth. Between transportation and communications infrastructure, police and firefighting services, public education and other basic social services, most Americans rely on the government in some form.
Where Romney goes substantively wrong -- but potentially politically right (more on that in a moment) -- is in insisting this harms society by making loafers out of people, and convincing them they don't have to take "personal responsibility and care for their lives." On the contrary, as even New York Times' conservative columnist David Brooks notes, Americans are both dependent on government and among the hardest-working people on Earth. Considering this, dependence on government is simply a necessary consequence of a well-functioning industrialized economy. Put simply, we rely on and fund a common set of public institutions that can construct and accomplish things that no single individual can construct and accomplish. Whether you call it "government" or simply "civilization," almost every American relies on the government in some form.
But that brings up the politics of the matter, and specifically, a politics that has long denied these basic realities. Indeed, as Romney surely calculates, many Americans, no matter how much they rely on their government, categorically refuse to acknowledge their own dependence.
That's not altogether surprising. Living in a Bootstraps Theocracy, we are subjected to a constant barrage of Randian mythology about self-reliance -- a mythology that pretends success comes only from the individual, and is inhibited by the common. This has been the reigning American religion since at least the 1980s, if not before, and its dominance explains why when a president today dares tout our obvious reliance on each other, he is summarily attacked. It also explains Cornell University's recent study on the so-called "submerged state" that shows that many Americans who receive direct cash benefits from the government nonetheless insist they have "not used a government social program." As I wrote in a column last year about that problem:
Certainly, some of that comes from the same ignoramuses who tell their congressional representatives to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” And some of it represents the willful dishonesty of self-professed conservatives who are too embarrassed to admit they utilize the government programs they purport to detest. However, the data also suggest that because so many submerged-state policies are successful and inconspicuous, many have come to reflexively define “government” as only those spectacular failures that fill the evening news.
Taken together, Romney's statements can be seen not as a gaffe, but as a careful -- if grotesque -- calculation. He understands that when he uses ugly makers-versus-takers rhetoric to portray all of our dependence on government as something horrible, many dependents will excitedly cheer him on. He knows that as they applaud, they will be convincing themselves into believing that they aren't one of the "takers," when, in fact, they -- and all of us -- are in some form. He knows, in short, that while he is directly insulting 47 percent of Americans, many of those 47 percent, plus many of the other 53 percent, will (wrongly) see it as an attack not on them, but on their supposed oppressors.
This is why for all the gleeful Democratic Party declarations since Romney's speech leaked, the political ramifications of the Republican nominee's comments aren't so cut and dried. Sure, such a revealingly divisive and resentful comment should doom a presidential candidacy -- especially one by a guy who already embodies the top-hat-and-monocle crowd. But the difference between "should" and "will" is the difference between a nation that understands how dependent it is on government and how such dependence is a hallmark of civilized society, and one that deludes itself into believing the makers-versus-takers fantasy that was first canonized in "Atlas Shrugged" and that now dominates American politics.