My American friends have been having a good laugh recently over the fact that Mitt Romney told a bunch of his rich backers that Obama voters are freeloaders who live off state handouts. It seems an odd audience to say that to, given that most of them, like Romney himself, will employ clever accounts to keep their tax bills down to the absolute minimum (though I guess they must resent having to pay for those accountants). However, I’m not sure that the message will play out quite as badly as my Liberal friends expect.
My evidence from this is something called the British Social Attitudes survey. The 29th edition was published yesterday, and its findings are consistent with the fact that an awful lot of Britons read the Daily Malice. I quote from their conclusions:
Neither redistribution in general nor welfare benefits in particular are as popular as they once were. This is by no means a recent change and certainly predates the recession. It primarily reflects a change in public attitudes during Labour’s years in power between 1997 and 2010.
These findings point towards an increased sense of ‘them and us’, with the most vulnerable in the labour market being viewed far less sympathetically than before, despite Britain’s current economic difficulties.
Somehow I doubt that Britons are unique in having become more mean-spirited (not to mention xenophobic — apparently 52% of Britons think immigration is a bad thing). And Americans tend to be more individualistic than Britons, not less.
The trouble is that no one is a freeloader in their own mind. Also everyone has anecdata about “real” freeloaders (mostly gleaned from the right wing media). In times of austerity the temptation to think that you are working hard, while others are sponging off the state, will be greater. A message that “people who vote for me are hard working, while those who vote for Obama are freeloaders” might work very well for Romney.