Freeloaders, We Hates Them

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.

8 thoughts on “Freeloaders, We Hates Them

  1. Related to this is the fact that in the most recent hate crime statistics, figures were down for most groups with the notable exception of the disabled, whom the Government (with the help of ATOS) have successfully associated in the public mind with freeloading.

  2. Very true — but the one thing standing in the way of that strategy for Romney is the incompetence of his campaign. It worked very well for Reagan: he was a master at making people think that he was talking about them when he said nice things and horrible other people when he said bad things. Romney has no skill with the emotional side of politics, his campaign has been worse than that of either Bob Dole or Mike Dukakis, and they’re up against Obama who, for all his faults, has a great campaign staff and himself is good with the emotional components (and he’s got Bill Clinton on his side, and I’d argue Clinton is Reagan’s unrivalled heir at that). What the Obama folks will need to do, and have begun to do, is turn Romney’s words around to say: He’s talking about you. Since there’s already a perception of Romney as an out-of-touch gazillionaire, it’s an easy story to stoke. People don’t like him, even if they think he’d be an okay president, and so any story that plays into the negative perceptions is bad news for him.

    That said, Romney’s unlimited money, the country’s economic troubles, weariness among Democrats, voter suppression efforts, and the lingering racism that keeps alive portrayals of Obama as a radical foreigner might just be enough to get more Republicans to the voting booths than Democrats in the swing states. Certainly, that’s Romney’s hope. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do exactly what you say — try to raise the sense of resentment. The Republican voters are not especially enthusiastic right now (the die-hard conservatives loathe Romney, no matter how much he tries to win their love), but if Romney can somehow display some political skill and turn the narrative around to the old Republican standby of “You work hard; they want to take your money and give it to lazy people and dastardly foreigners,” then he might have a shot. But again, that would require political skill, and his campaign hasn’t shown any for a while.

  3. Yeah, to somewhat echo Matt above; given how unpopular Obama “should” be (from the economic plight of the US – not really his fault but it’s on his watch and that’s all that matters – to, frankly and openly, his race: still a huge issue, if not always consciously, to a lot of Americans), a Republican victory would normally be considered a formality at this point. But Romney is such a charmless, graceless patrician, trying to enthuse on the one side a base of voters who are now rabidly anti-elitist (the Tea Party propaganda machine has worked wonders on that score), and on the other side the swayable moderate/middle-grounders who need to be charmed into his camp… it’s going to be a close election. At the moment Obama has a slight edge, and Mitt will have to do an astonishing job in the head-to-head debates to portray himself as a dignified yet likeable man, since it seems abunantly clear he’s neither.

    I can’t call this election yet, but oddly I can pretty much call the 2016 one – if Romney wins 2012 he’ll be ousted, heavily, in 2016, whereas if Obama wins 2012 the Republicans should win 2016 narrowly as long as they can find a likeable candidate. However demographics indicate that post-2016, the Republicans are in real trouble unless they can change their appeal – which is going to be hard as their base are so vocal and volatile within their own primaries, so moderate Repubs are becoming a rare beast indeed.

  4. What an outsider might not realize is the irony in Romney’s statements as well. While this was a group of presumably wealthy supporters, the “red” states that will vote for Romney contain a vast number of people receiving some form of government subsidy. While he is ostensibly talking about food stamps and welfare and healthcare, there are citizens in red states receiving benefits for agriculture (to grow or not to grow) and there are people grazing their animals on government land–for free. And when forest fires break out in places that are anti-Federal government, they sure has heck want the government to provide the assets to help put out the fires and then rebuild. And there are things like flood insurance that’s covered by the government as well, not by private industry. If your beach house gets flattened in a hurricane? The government will help you rebuild it right there.

    Some people are really good at pointing out what others shouldn’t have but not so good at looking at what they get via the same system.

    1. Ah yes, farm subsidies. I heard somewhere that the majority of the money is paid to people living in New York, because it doesn’t matter how big your farm is, and if you have a really big farm you are very rich indeed.

      There’s one thing you have forgotten, though, and I’ll get in before Kevin does. Most Americans believe that the government should provide roads for free.

  5. “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).”

    No, they aren’t unique — I’m seeing the same thing in our was-supposed-to-be-social-democrat-heaven Finland. Our far right (which I guess would qualify as moderate left in the US scale) is gaining more traction, and the discussion about immigration has largely become just taking ad hominem potshots at each other by both sides, in my opinion.

    The same goes with economic issues, and along the rising popularity of the populist right, I think people on the left have also too often resorted to making snide remarks and having polarized opinions on issues and people (I’m sure a few of my friends consider me an evil bourgeois pig for thinking that working hard and being good at what you do merits some compensation, and for owning an apartment).

  6. The big problem for Romney is that the primary beneficiaries of government transfer payments in the US are actually old people, through Social Security and Medicare. Old people are usually core Republican voters, but this may shake some loose — I’ve already seen Internet comments to that effect.

    A second-order problem is that Romney can now be spun as bashing benefits for disabled veterans, since the Veterans Administration is also a major source of transfer payments. That’s more of a stretch — it’s not as big a part of the budget — but it fits his words well enough, and I’d expect an Obama TV ad on that topic within another day or two. You don’t get very far in the US “bashing the troops.”

    As to the core of his coded message, the US doesn’t spend as much as most Western democracies on payments to the traditional welfare constituencies — the poor, women, and children — though that’s clearly the kind of attack Romney meant to make. Sadly for him, he’s made it with his usual lack of charm — he’s not as good as coded racism as Reagan was.

    This particular gaffe is annoying Republicans not just because it reinforces the standard perception of Romney — a rich creep who has no empathy for anyone — but because he’s pretty directly beating up on people whom he wants to vote for him. That’s never a good idea.

    1. I’m perfectly happy to believe that Romney is incompetent as a politician, but that’s not the point I was making. Most people who live off government money in some way or another don’t believe that it is them that are the freeloaders. Old people, in particular, believe that they are entitled to their pensions because they have paid taxes all of their working lives. They have a point. They’ll only turn from Romney if they see clear evidence that they are going to be targeted, not those noisy freeloader kids on their lawn.

      A very similar point was made today on Crooked Timber. What the Obama campaign needs to do is make it clear to the electorate just who is going to suffer from a Romney victory.

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