Why Romney And The GOP Want To Convince You That The Poor Have Too Much Money

February 02, 2012 2:18 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Mitt Romney

Substantively, Mitt Romney's statement that he isn't concerned about poor people matches up perfectly with his policy proposals, which demonstrate a callous disregard for the wellbeing of anyone who isn't already well-off. But that doesn't mean Romney's comments were a sincere and straightforward articulation of his agenda: This is, after all, a candidate whose only sincere commitment is to saying whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear. And, indeed, Romney's explanation for his lack of concern about the poor was characteristically disingenuous, pointing to the very social safety net he proposes to destroy as evidence that we needn't be concerned for those who rely upon it. 

More likely, Romney's comments were an invocation of a decades-long right-wing narrative designed to drive a wedge between the poor and middle class, to the benefit of a handful of wealthy elites. That narrative is an essential element of the right's approach to politics: After all, a movement that exists primarily to consolidate wealth and power in the hands of as few people as possible won't exist long without a successful divide-and-conquer strategy. Recognizing that they need the votes of more than just the nation's millionaires and billionaires — and that the middle class shows up to vote more reliably than the poor, particularly if you make it extremely difficult for the poor to do so — conservatives have long worked to convince the middle class that the reason they are struggling is that the poor have it too good. Hence Ronald Reagan's apocryphal tales of Cadillac-driving "welfare queens": anything to distract the public from policies that redistribute wealth upwards, not downwards.

Take another look at Romney's comments about the poor:

I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. ...I'm concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling. ... The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democrat party the plight of the poor. ... My focus is on middle-income Americans. ... We have a very ample safety net, ... we have food stamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing vouchers, we have programs to help the poor.

The message is clear: The middle class — the "very heart of America" — is struggling while we lavish countless benefits on the poor. Never mind that the real reason the middle class is struggling is an economy rigged in favor of the super-rich, resulting in a massive redistribution of wealth towards the very top and away from the poor and middle class alike — and never mind that Romney, a beneficiary of this rigging, wants to rig things even further. Romney's comments pit the middle class and poor against each other in a scramble for the table scraps left behind after he and his fellow plutocrats have taken their ever-larger share of the pie.

Last fall, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Romney showed that he was rattled by the increased public discontent over the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny number of people like Mitt Romney. Asked about "tax cuts for the wealthy," Romney told a bald-faced lie: "I'm proposing no tax cuts for the rich." In fact, Romney is proposing massive tax cuts for the rich, and very little for anyone else — and he will pay for those tax cuts by slashing programs that everyone else relies upon.

Distribution of wealth and the rigged economic and political structure that leads to it had in recent years been paid trivial attention by media and political agenda-setters, and the intensity of public outrage threw Romney and his fellow Republicans off-balance — but it wasn't long before they found their footing, reverting to their time-tested strategy of pitting the middle class against the poor. 

Last fall, Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) tried to update Reagan's "welfare queen" boogeyman with purely theoretical claims about Rolls Royce-driving Medicaid recipients. Now, MSNBC's Steve Benen notes House Republicans are doing their best to gin up public outrage over the nonexistent problem of welfare funds being spent on "adult entertainment." Again, the message is clear: The middle class is struggling because poor people are getting government handouts to spend on fancy cars and strippers. (There are, of course, people who benefit from favorable government policies and spend lavishly on expensive automobiles and adult entertainment, but they tend to be the wealthy beneficiaries of preferential tax treatment of investment income, not poor people relying on food stamps to feed their children.)

In the conservative narrative, not only are poor people squandering government money — your money — they aren't even poor.  Poor people have refrigerators and VCRs and most of them aren't actually starving to death in the streets, so they aren't really poor at all, according to the Heritage Foundation and other propagandists for the one percent. With such luxuries, it's no wonder the poor spend their government handouts — your money — on Rolls Royces.

As much as conservatives decry "class warfare" that "divides Americans against each other," the truth is that the modern conservative movement is the most enthusiastic — and successful — practitioner of class warfare in American history. It has waged this war on behalf of the wealthy, against the rest of the nation. And it owes its success in large part to a strategy of instigating a civil class war between people who should be united in opposition to policies that harm them all. 

As always, the right's campaign to drive a wedge between the victims of its coddle-the-wealthy policies and the other victims of its coddle-the-wealthy policies will be well-funded, disciplined and cunning. It's going to have to be in order to convince people struggling to pay their mortgage that the problem is that people struggling to pay their electric bill have it too good. Especially when the quarter-billionaire Republican presidential frontrunner pays a lower tax rate than they do.