When Mitt Romney’s now-infamous “47%” comments were made public, the Republican presidential nominee first said they were “not elegantly stated” and later went further, saying they were “just completely wrong.” The general sentiment behind them, though, underlies Romney’s entire campaign and is still pleasing his supporters: the idea that vast numbers of Americans vote Democratic because they’ve come to take government for granted, because they want a big government that will coddle them instead of a small government that will force them to actually work for their daily bread.
I wonder, though, whether it’s not actually Republican voters who are the ones taking government for granted.
Certainly there’s a substantial portion of the Republican base who understand the implications of the GOP’s tax-slashing policy and welcome its outcome. There are the libertarian types who have their loaded guns and are ready for an unregulated Mad Max world, and there are the wealthy voters who would prefer to spend their money on private schools and private security forces and private parks for themselves and their children rather than funding public schools and public police forces and public parks for everyone.
Then, though, there are the millions and millions of Republican voters like the people I went to high school with, working-class and middle-class voters who tend to agree with Republicans on social issues and have been convinced that they agree with the GOP on economic issues as well. It’s these voters who I believe are the ones really taking government for granted in this election-year debate.
One of my high school classmates, for example, recently posted a Facebook status complaining about her family’s rising health insurance premiums, blaming them on the large numbers of uninsured people who her insurance company is telling her she’s footing the bill for. Arguing that Obamacare is only going to make her premiums go up, she said she hopes the President doesn’t get a second term. When I pointed out that Obama’s plan is specifically designed to reduce the number of uninsured, she shot back that she doesn’t like the idea of being forced to buy anything—such as health insurance—when her family is already struggling.
While I sympathize with my classmate’s tight economic situation, I was left thinking of Larry David in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry argues with his doctor to change a waiting-room policy that’s inconvenient for Larry, then later in the episode argues that the doctor should change it back when it’s no longer convenient for him. “Apparently,” a nurse says, “it’s not about the policy at all. It’s more just about you going first.” That’s exactly what it’s about, Larry is honest enough to answer.
This is the group of voters who applaud when Romney promises to get the government out of their way—to cut regulations, and to cut taxes. This is the “We Built It” voter who imagines every cent of tax money being deposited straight in the bank account of an lazy unemployed guy who lies in his easy chair, chuckling about the wonderful folly of a system that picks the pockets of hardworking Americans to provide him with food, shelter, and health care.
Who’s the one taking government for granted, though? It’s not the unemployed voter who is in reality finding—unemployed people, back me up on this one—health care, food, and shelter not so easy to come by. It’s those hardworking Republican voters who seem to see right through all the ways government is using their taxes very well right under their noses every day.
There’s Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, of course—the big federal programs—but there are also industry subsidies and building programs such as those funded by Obama’s stimulus package. Then there are the state and local programs that are feeling the squeeze of reduced federal funding: highway construction and schools and fire departments and public defenders and police officers. It’s mayors and governors who take the heat for cuts to those programs; sometimes that’s justified, but often local officials’ hands are tied by the federal subsidy reductions resulting from all those tax cuts my high school classmates are so enthusiastically calling for.
This isn’t just a subjective impression: it’s a plain fact that red states are more likely than blue states to get more in federal expenditures than they pay in taxes. Per capita, federal aid to Republican and Democratic voters is closely comparable. When Republicans vote to reduce the size of the government against the wishes of Democrats, I wonder whether people like my high school classmates really understand that it’s truly a matter of “this will hurt you even more than it hurts me.”
One of my classmates, at least, does understand that. Like me, from age five to age 18 he attended schools where we were taught to be single-issue voters, rejecting any pro-choice candidate no matter what the other issues at stake were. Now, though, he’s considering running for state office as a Democrat. Why? His views on abortion haven’t changed: he’s still pro-life. What’s changed is his understanding of what Republican administrations have done to our government at every level.
My friend is an attorney working in the county court systems, helping children and other vulnerable individuals who enter those courts with little money or understanding of the law as it concerns themselves. He also volunteers as a firefighter. He’s the kind of real American hero Mitt Romney or George W. Bush would love a good photo op with, but he’s seen up close what the policies of the Bush Administration—policies a Romney Administration would return to—have done. They’ve left courts overburdened and children vulnerable. They’ve made it hard for towns to afford the firefighting equipment they need to keep families safe. My friend is a devout Christian, but he doesn’t see much Christian love for one’s neighbor in Republican pledges to reduce the size of government no matter what.
Are Romney voters aware of this Faustian bargain they’re making with a man who promises to get out of their way? If he’s as good as his word, my high school classmates may find that the day will come when they lose their jobs and there are no unemployment benefits; when their children go to court and there’s no one to defend them; when their house is burning and the town’s only fire truck is busy. True to his word, Mitt Romney will be far, far out of their way.