As the media storm surge continues to crash down on Mitt Romney head, it may be worth remembering that modern elections in this country are winner-take-all contests where the goal, for the most part, is to wound your opponent before she wounds you.
The fantasy in the base, as always, is that the candidate will utter one phrase that is powerful enough to simultaneously impress and dissuade. Such a phrase or magical rhetorical moment does not exist.
What does exist, however, are moments where one candidate is left with a gaping wound–a moment so damaging that it rises above the tit-for-tat of politics and cuts to the core of how we think about ourselves as Americans.
Mitt Romney’s video is exactly that kind a wounding moment and no matter what the Romney campaign does from this point forward, they will never be able to stitch him up. From this point forward, they need to slap some vaseline over the cut, send him back into the ring, and hope for the best.
So, how do we translate Romney’s gaping wound into basic terms? What was the core American value that he trampled?
Mitt Romney’s gaping wound can be summed up in one word:
The idea that the “haves” in American society are not in fact better than the “have-nots”–that all Americans, irrespective of financial means, all sit at the same table–is one of the most deeply held values in our system. We routinely reference this value using the word “equality.”
Now, given the past 100 years of ongoing civil rights battles in this country, many observers of politics often identify “equality” solely with these struggles for inclusion. Certainly, these civil rights struggles are fronts in the larger discourse of equality.
Given the relationship between American culture, our Constitution, and the capitalist system, however, there is a much broader understanding of equality situated within the discourse of means, money and wealth.
In those broad conception of equality–which is almost never articulated fully in our system, but is deeply held to be true–Americans believe that the amount of wealth one accumulates does not in turn give one’s individual citizenship more value. To have millions and millions in the bank does not give one the right to stand in judgement over those less fortunate.
Do not be mistaken, here. Judging others is as American as pumpkin pie. We are happy to judge people for their looks, their accent, their sexuality, thee shape of their body, and their religion. The most popular television shows are reality shows in which people stand before a panel of judges.
Judge another person for anything you’d like, so long as you do not stand in judgement over another American for having less money.
Now, to observers of the Republican Party, this may seem like the very thing they do all the time. Stand in judgement.
In fact, the hallmark of the modern GOP is the extent to which they have always found the cleverest (some would say devious) ways for the wealthy to wield power over the less fortunate without ever judging them for having less.
The advances legislation that helps the wealthy to the detriment of the working class and poor via massive rhetorical campaigns that judge government, Islam, women, atheism, homosexuality, teachers, science, single mothers, and so on, and so forth. And yet, you would be hard pressed to find a GOP campaign that came right out and said what it was thinking: You don’t have as much as us because you are lazy.
Roll the tape back to Mitt Romney’s key quote:
“There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% 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 they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…These are people who pay no income tax, 47% of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll (President Obama) be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.”
Ignoring for a moment that most of what Romney says is a lie (most of the 47% pay higher tax rates than Romney–deducted from their paychecks), what we see here is a Presidential candidate standing in judgement over those less fortunate.
It is a grand moment of country club condescension caught on video. Romney is saying that be someone in this category of the 47% is to be less than a full thinking individual. You are a person guided by emotions, not reason. You are easily manipulated and lazy. And how does he know that you are like this? Because your lack of “personal responsibility” has left your bank accounts less substantial than his. The 47%, Romney is saying, are not as good as the rest of us.
If Mitt Romney ultimately ends up winning the election, pundits will write post-scripts talking about the end of an America based on equality, the rise of neo-feudalism, the Dickensian Presidency.
If Mitt Romney ultimately ends up losing the election, pundits will return to the video as the moment a vast majority of America felt judged by the Republican candidate and, accordingly, turned away in disgust.
Either way, Mitt Romney has doomed himself to a long and painful future with a gaping wound that will never heal.