This Sunday, I attended a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival in which moderator Ta-Nehisi Coates started out with a question for the panelists: Does this campaign season matter? Are we learning anything about the candidates? I was in the audience, but my response would be: Yes, it matters, and we’re learning a great deal. But it’s mostly about what the Republican Party really thinks.
While this election season may appear gaffe-tastic, the most viral moments weren’t misspoken words. Rather, they reveal what’s deep in the conservative heart—opinions that many had warned existed for a long time (and had even appeared in real-life legislation) but have now been put into stark relief for the general public. This election season has been highly instructional about deep-seated beliefs on the right.
The latest and perhaps most viral—nabbing Mother Jones, which broke the story, over 8 million visitors—was Romney’s now-infamous hidden camera 47 percent comment. Here’s what he said:
There are 47 percent of the people…. 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. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax…. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Romney has stood by his comments, with his economic adviser swearing to “triple down” on them. And in fact the ideas he expresses are nothing new to the party. Worse, given the candidness of the moment, Romney expressed what can only be characterized as unabashed disdain for half of the country. It’s not just that he’s worried, as the conservatives who cling to the 47 percent figure explain, that this constituency won’t vote for tax cuts and instead will vote for higher social safety net payouts. He dismisses them entirely because he can “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
What that sentiment leaves out, of course, is that while these Americans didn’t pay income taxes (thanks to many policies pushed into law by Republicans themselves), it doesn’t mean they don’t pay any taxes. Over 60 percent of them paid payroll taxes, which means that they also held jobs. Nearly everyone pays sales tax. Another 22 percent of this group was elderly. Add that up, and what he’s mostly talking about are the working poor and low-income older Americans. These are the people that Romney dismisses as taking no responsibility for their lives.
Far from an outlier, Romney’s statement has a long, long history. As my colleague at the Roosevelt Institute Mark Schmitt pointed out last week, this narrative around the 47 percent was hatched in the lab of the American Enterprise Institute. It’s been spouted by the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Republican VP pick Paul Ryan himself. But Romney’s remarks revealed an even more deep-seated disdain for the working poor than is normally expressed. It’s not just about taxes; it’s a belief that those at the bottom are worth less of his attention and care than the rest of the country. So much for compassionate conservatism. Romney’s remarks revealed once and for all that there is a deep disrespect for working-class and low-income people struggling to get by thriving at the heart of the Republican Party.
And it sheds light on another comment of his that blew up not so long ago: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” At the time, the quote seemed a bit out of context, because Romney continued, “We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” Yet in his hidden-camera moment, he makes it clear just how much he despises the safety net he says should catch the poor. He scoffs at those who require assistance for healthcare, food and housing, some of the most basic provisions that this country is supposed to ensure those who are at the bottom of the income scale. Yet another moment of clarity, made even clearer by his recent comments.
We’ve seen some other very telling moments from the Republican nominee this cycle. There was “Corporations are people, my friend,” an unabashed and straightforward articulation of the conservative ethos that fueled the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Then there was the telling, fully five-second silence from Romney aides when asked whether he supports the Lilly Ledbetter Act, exposing discomfort with equal pay legislation.
But it’s not just the presidential candidate who has haphazardly revealed truths. Just last month, before we were talking about the 47 percent, we were talking about “legitimate” rape. Remember Todd Akin? Who could forget? On a random Sunday in the middle of August, Akin told a TV interviewer, “[F]rom what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Just like Romney, Akin refused to apologize for the meaning behind his words, explaining he merely meant to say “forcible rape,” not “legitimate rape.”
But this wasn’t the first time he—or the Republican Party—used the word “forcible” to categorize rapes that count and those that don’t. Akin co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act in early 2011, which would have tightened the definition of rape for abortions that are covered by the federal exception to only “forcible” ones. While some noticed this at the time, Akin’s remarks made it crystal clear to anyone half tuned in that the Republican Party thinks some rapes count and others don’t. In particular, if you weren’t roughed up when you were raped—if you were drugged, or date raped, or the victim of incest—you weren’t “really” raped.
There are other truths that surfaced about the conservative view of reproductive health. Primaries are often a process of learning, as more marginal candidates push the mainstream ones to address issues they normally wouldn’t. And right on cue, Rick Santorum made birth control, an issue many thought was settled, a debate point. Perhaps his views were made clearest by an interview with the Christian site Caffeinated Thoughts, in which he warned of “the dangers of contraception,” calling it “not okay.”
Shortly after, Irin Carmon summed up his position thus: “Rick Santorum is coming for your birth control.” In fact, conservative opposition to not just abortion, which continues to be a polarizing topic, but birth control, which does not, has been building for quite some time. But many have been in denial—Carmon herself got a wave of pushback for the title of her piece. And yet months later, contraception was once again in the news as the Catholic bishops came out swinging against the Obama administration’s decision to mandate co-pay-free coverage of contraception as part of the ACA. And we all remember what happened next—the fight devolved into Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut for talking about (her friend’s) contraception needs. The cat is out of the bag: the GOP thinks using contraception, which virtually every woman will do in her lifetime, makes you a dirty whore and doesn’t support increased access.
These awkwardly worded statements and admissions of belief in what candidates assumed were safe spaces are hugely important. It may seem ridiculous that a hidden camera video can fuel three weeks of the news cycle. But what Romney revealed was more than an ability to keep putting his foot in his mouth. Republicans, perhaps more than ever, have exposed long-held beliefs this campaign season. They’re just finally going viral.
For more on the Republican sprint to the right, check out Ben Adler’s take on crazy conservative memes.