On the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, a movement that unwisely apportioned Americans into mutually hostile camps defined by wealth, a video surfaced of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney telling donors that the nation is more appropriately divided based on the amount of federal income tax we pay.
Speaking at a Florida dinner, Romney imposed a metaphorical quarantine on the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income tax and who, he said, “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.”
In the past year, many members of the “1 percent” were no doubt surprised to learn from Occupy Wall Street that they are at war with the vast majority of their fellow citizens. We suspect quite a few of the 76 million American “tax units” without federal income tax liability were equally perplexed to discover -- some while listening to the car radio on their way home from work -- that they are too lazy to take responsibility for themselves, their families and their futures.
Henry Adams famously described politics as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” What we have here are two examples of the systematic organization of stupidities. Both the “1 percent versus 99 percent” and the “makers versus takers” slogans are ideological constructs borne of ignorance, mythology and the tribal arrogance that results from spending way too much time with people like yourself.
This is a larger problem for a political party than for a protest group. Whether Romney truly believes what he said or was merely pandering to what he presumed to be audience sentiment is beside the point. Surely he understands that more than half of those who pay no federal income tax -- 28 percent of all U.S. households -- pay taxes for Medicare and Social Security, and many pay taxes at a higher rate than Romney himself. (Because these are payroll taxes, by definition the people who pay them all have jobs.)
An additional 10 percent of households pay no federal income tax because they are receiving nontaxable retirement benefits -- the benefits both presidential candidates have promised to protect. Roughly 7 percent pay no federal income tax or payroll taxes because society has collectively determined that they should hold onto every cent they can.
We suspect that Romney campaign strategists understand that many of the nation’s poorest states regularly vote Republican. It’s not clear why their candidate felt compelled to create the impression that the poor (and much of the middle class, too) are implacably opposed to the interests of the wealthy donors who surround Romney. (Occupiers made a similar mistake, presuming to discern character from income statements.)
Race, class, sex, region and ideology are all genuine dividing lines in American experience. Those divisions will be exacerbated from time to time, with elections in particular providing ample invitations to friction. But Americans are more than the sum of our prejudices and demographics. We hold high ideals and hard history in common.
The task before both Romney and his opponent, President Barack Obama, and the rest of us, too, is to assert our common bonds and aspirations with greater frequency and conviction in the weeks before November. A progressive tax code, in which all contribute to the general welfare relative to their means, is a hallmark of a decent society. Few Americans wish to dismantle it. Likewise, the nation’s social compact might be frayed, but this is no civil war here; we don’t need another Lincoln. A little respect and decency should suffice.
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