Mitt Romney's Class Warfare

In decrying Obama voters as "victims" who are "dependent on government," Romney taps a favorite theme of Tea Party conservatives.

In decrying Obama voters as "victims" who are "dependent on government," Romney taps a favorite theme of Tea Party conservatives.

It was fitting that Monday, the day Mitt Romney found himself on the defensive for comments he made disparaging the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax, was also the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests. It was in response to Occupy's "We are the 99 percent" rallying cry that conservatives, led by RedState founder Erick Erickson, started their own percentage-based movement last October: "We are the 53 percent," a reference to the fraction of American households that owed federal income taxes in 2009.

Erickson launched the movement's Tumblr with a picture of himself holding a handwritten sign:

I work 3 jobs.
I have a house I can't sell.
My family insurance costs are outrageous.
But I don't blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53% subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain.

Erickson's Tumblr quickly gathered nearly 600 re-posts. Like the Occupiers they were parodying, the 53 percenters mostly told personal stories -- burdened with college loans, scraping to get by, never catching a break -- but rather than concluding they were being screwed by a broken system, they celebrated their ability to "suck it up" and fend for themselves.

The idea that nearly half the population gets handouts from government while contributing nothing in return is not accurate -- of the 47 percent who don't owe income tax, the majority pay payroll taxes, and the rest almost certainly pay into the commonweal through local levies such as sales taxes -- but it struck a chord with conservatives convinced President Obama is engineering a European-style work-optional welfare state overseen by an all-consuming government behemoth. Republican presidential candidates such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann trumpeted the theme; in her stump speech, Bachmann incorporated a riff passionately advocating that every American pay a token amount in federal income taxes, perhaps $10, to give them a symbolic stake in the national project.

In the instantly infamous video posted by Mother Jones' David Corn on Monday, Romney took up the point:

There are 47 percent of the 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. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax. ... My job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney has alluded to the makers-versus-takers worldview before, notably with his attacks on Obama's changes to welfare policy. In an interview with USA Today three weeks ago, he claimed that Obama was looking to "shore up his base" by expanding welfare. (He has also memorably said, "I'm not concerned about the very poor," because those living in dire poverty already have an adequate safety net and don't need more government help.) But as Conor Friedersdorf notes, the bluntness and behind-closed-doors aspects of the secret video give it force. As with then-candidate Obama's infamous "clinging to guns or religion" riff, also surreptitiously taped at a closed-press fundraiser, the Romney recording reinforces the well-founded suspicion that politicians aren't telling us what they really think. In other words, the fact that Romney was speaking confidentially to a group of wealthy donors makes him seem both callous and phony.

But while Democrats decried Romney's comments and Republicans fretted over the latest Romney gaffe, one conservative was cheering -- Erickson.

"Class warfare" has long been the accusation hurled at populist politicians on the left. In seeking to make the tax code more progressive by repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, this argument goes, they are pitting Americans against one another -- the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. It's similar to the argument against liberal policies aimed at minorities and women, which conservatives see as a violation of the American ideal of equality. Romney, in his stump speech, frequently blasts Obama as divisive, promising to bring America together instead. Here he is in Ohio last month, for example:

Over the last four years, this President has pushed Republicans and Democrats as far apart as they can go. And now he and his allies are pushing us all even further apart by dividing us into groups. He demonizes some. He panders to others. His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then cobble together 51 percent of the pieces. If an American president wins that way, we all lose. But he won't win that way. America is one Nation under God. ... So, Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.

That's the argument against so-called "class warfare." But there's another strain of conservative thought, an outgrowth of the Tea Party's don't-make-me-pay-my-neighbor's-mortgage ethos, that would rather engage the class war from the other side than rise above it. These are the conservatives who wish Romney would stop acting sheepish about his wealth and embrace his image as a ruthlessly effective CEO. They want a government that radically scales back and stops coddling the "takers" at the expense of everyone else. They are Erickson and the rest of the Tea Party faithful who, ironically, thought Mitt Romney was the least sympathetic of the Republican primary candidates.

They are -- or believe themselves to be -- the 53 percent.