September 19, 2012
By David K. Shipler
I met Debra Hall in Cleveland years before Mitt Romney slandered 47 percent of all Americans as lazy parasites who want government to feed, house, and coddle them. She was 39, the single mother of two, and lived near poverty by working intensively at hard jobs that paid extremely low wages.
She learned how to type, how to keep an inventory, and how to drive a forklift, but she couldn’t find a job commensurate with her skills. Hired by a bakery, she was placed at a grueling conveyor belt; all the forklift drivers there were men. When I last saw her, she was getting up at 2 a.m., driving her beat-up car to the bakery, and putting in long, numbing shifts for $7.90 an hour. Yet when I asked her to list the reasons that she thought she had been confined to a life of poverty, she answered with one word: “Lazy.”
Lazy? I said. You work harder than I do. And harder than Mitt Romney, I’d now add. So, where does this self-indictment come from?
It’s not unusual to hear the poor blame themselves by using the same terminology inflicted on them by the upper classes.
Just as minorities in many societies internalize the prejudices held against them by the majorities, so do the poor in America often adopt the country’s basic myth that if you work hard you’ll prosper, and if you don’t prosper, then it means there’s something wrong with you.
This is not a new set of attitudes, so when Romney issued his callous dismissal of nearly half the country as unworthy—in candid remarks at a closed fundraiser of millionaires—he was not going off the rails. He was not suddenly jumping the tracks of the well traveled arguments that conservatives have made for decades. He was touching a nerve of truth about conservative America—not just Republican America, but the conservative strain that also grips many white working class Democrats, and that once held Southern Democrats who supported segregation and exuded similar contempt for their fellow citizens who were black.
The reasons for poverty and near poverty are complex and resistant to easy formulations. They are mixtures of societal failure and personal failure in different proportions for each individual. But “lazy” does not apply to very many people I met in years of interviewing for my book, The Working Poor. None seemed delighted about needing government assistance in the form of food stamps, housing subsidies, or Medicaid. They cared and worried about their children growing up on mean, drug-ridden streets and in disrupted, ill-equipped schools. Their own repeated failures—in classrooms, in relationships, in jobs—had drained their sense of possibility.
Now comes Romney to kick them in the teeth. It’s a cliché to say that he should sit down and spend some time talking with—and listening to—some of the less fortunate Americans he wants to lead. He has revealed himself as less informed about his country than most presidential candidates of either party in modern times, especially since his “47 percent” stretches far beyond those are poor and deeply into the middle class.
Indeed, it is hard to think of another presidential nominee who has said such terrible things about a large category of Americans. But it is not hard to imagine others on the right who have thought the ugly thoughts and, in formulating policies, have acted on them. The idea that those who are less successful do not deserve the compassion and assistance of the community—especially as channeled through government—has been a feature of the American landscape, right alongside the spirit of generosity that has also characterized the country. How many of the wealthy who heard him at the fundraiser went ahead and wrote checks? All, I’d guess. We are selfish and philanthropic simultaneously.
When a speechwriter for George W. Bush coined the term “compassionate conservatism,” it sounded hollow. Conservatism had moved far from compassion and into what has currently become a flowering ideology of individualism at all costs. Now that Mitt Romney has shown conservatism for what it has become, the shock might provoke a move to restore its more humane impulses.
That’s the optimistic view. The danger is that many voters who detest President Obama and who buy the propaganda lines of the right will figure that Romney is not including them in the 47 percent. They pay taxes, after all. They work hard. They strive. They don’t want government as their nursemaid. Stereotyping and blaming and despising a large portion of the citizenry is convenient in a time of economic uncertainty and vulnerability.
Stirring up hatred carries risks. When it is done by a man who would be president—always with a benign smile—we need to worry.