Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
SIDNEY, OHIO—At the Shelby county fairgrounds in Sidney, Ohio, on Oct. 10, a jumbotron showed a bus approaching. Image became reality as Mitt Romney’s bulbous white chariot glided into the rally of thousands. It was an impressive entrance, for those who are impressed by RVs.
Bounding up to a podium, Romney was ready to proselytize. Thousands of faces turned toward him in the chilly evening air. Word was that Romney’s conquest of Obama in the first debate had infused his robotic demeanor with passion. It was hard to see much evidence of that.
To polite applause, Romney blandly declared, “That’s an Ohio welcome. Thank you guys.” He tried to rouse the audience with a counter to Obama campaign chants of “Four more years,” and the crowd hesitantly recited “Four more weeks,” their tone as flat as the surrounding farmland.
No matter. Romney dove into his stump speech. It was the gospel of lower taxes, freer trade, stronger military, and drill, baby, drill, and the audience was receptive. He hit all the buttons, “jobs,” “small business,” “compete,” and “opportunities.” Some specifics drew hearty cheers: “Get rid of the death tax,” “get that pipeline in from Canada,” and “our military must be second to none.”
The crowd responded favorably because the ideas are presented simply and clearly. People are hurting, and Romney says he’ll create more jobs and put more money in your pocket. His message is he won’t do it through welfare, like Obama, but by encouraging American values like entrepreneurialism, strength, and self-sufficiency.
Author Thomas Frank calls this brand of politics “Pity the Billionaire … a revival crusade preaching the old-time religion of the free market.” Frank argues the post-Obama resurgence of the right is not about racism or culture wars, but a populist politics of resentment. The right, he explains, has effectively defined the economic crisis as “a conspiracy of the big guys against the little,” and their solution is “to work even more energetically for the laissez-faire utopia.”
It’s not either-or as Frank contends, however. The right is invoking “producerism,” telling Americans bruised by the downturn that your pain is due to social factors, which are presented as coded racial categories.
Political Research Associates, a group of scholars who study right-wing movements, defines producerism as a call to “rally the virtuous ‘producing classes’ against evil ‘parasites’ at both the top and bottom of society.” The concept stretches back to the Andrew Jackson era, and weaves “together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class whites’ double-edged resentments.” Today, the parasites at the top are liberals, bureaucrats, bankers, and union “bosses”; the ones below are “welfare queens,” teachers, Muslims, and “illegal aliens.” They are all taking money from the hard-working Americans in the middle.
By historical standards Romney should be a Walter Mondale, a candidate who has lost even before the race begins. But he is effectively utilizing the politics of white resentment because of Obama’s dismal economic record. Tens of millions of low-wage workers feel their world is coming apart and they don’t know whom to blame. To them, change may mean lower wages, fewer hours, no health care, or a lost home. Romney plays on fear by linking it to Obama. In Sidney he said, “The president seems to be changing America in ways we don’t recognize,” which elicited chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
It’s not that the United States is inherently right wing, as many commentators claim. In Ohio, autoworkers say there is almost universal support among their co-workers for Obama because the auto bailout saved their jobs. But the bailout affected less than 1 percent of all U.S. jobs. In a recent poll the president has the support of only 35 percent of white working-class voters compared to Romney’s 48 percent.
The Romney rally was stunningly white. Among the estimated 9,000 people, it was hard to find more than a handful who looked to be Black, Latino or Asian. Attendees complained about welfare and high taxes destroying the country. Romney fed the resentment by claiming Obama was going to “raise the tax on savings,” “put in place a more expensive death tax,” and raise taxes on “a million” small businesses.
Democrats dismiss Romney as a snake-oil salesman. Joe Biden pointed out in the debate against Paul Ryan that the GOP counts billion-dollar hedge funds as small businesses. That’s true, but it doesn’t account for the popularity of their ideas. You see, the Republicans have turned small business into a catch-all group the way “working class” once served that function for the left.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the number of self-employed and employer firms – those with employees other than the owner – numbered 15.7 million in 2009. It’s likely that most are kitchen table, garage or laptop operations, but that’s beside the point. Republicans are courting millions of Americans whose livelihood depends on unswerving faith in the market.
Of the five people we talked to who told us their profession, four said they were a small-business owner. They did not seem to think of themselves as workers, but as frustrated entrepreneurs. When Romney says he’s going to help small business expand and stop Obama from increasing taxes on small businesses they think he’s speaking to them. They hope Romney will return the nation to its natural free-market state – free from regulations, bureaucrats and welfare – in which hard-working Americans like them achieve the success they deserve.
Why shouldn’t they believe this rhetoric? The Democrats mimic the right even when they control all of Washington. Obama says he will make business more competitive, cut taxes, sign trade deals, bomb the world into democracy and drill, frack and mine for energy. The Democrats’ dilemma is they are in the pocket of Wall Street, but need votes from groups that want the economic pie to be sliced more evenly. The result is liberals worship the same free-market god as conservatives, but have no conviction about it.
Absent an alternative, many voters veer right because they are reaching for the only lifeline they see. “Energy independence” and “a military second to none” are not just catch phrases. They provide millions of decent-paying jobs for the white working class.
This is not to say Romney voters always understand what they are voting for. Talking to some was like walking Through the Looking Glass, where backwards is forwards. Supporters repeatedly ascribed to Romney positions that are the exact opposite of what he advocates. Or they swallow lies about Obama that contradict their own experience. This suggests that racial identity often outweighs rational self-interest. Romney again made this a direct appeal, capping his speech by saying, “We’re taking back America.”
Ron Elmore, a small businessman who sells education supplies, preferred Romney because he would “get America going in the right direction again.” Elmore said he was struggling to get by and believed Romney would help his business by increasing education funding.
Two 16-year-olds, Jennifer Poling and Caitie Johnson, called themselves Romney backers. Johnson said, “There’s too many people today who depend on the government.” Poling said her mother is a “hardcore Obama” supporter because Romney is against women’s rights. Poling, though, shrugged off the right’s explicit anti-abortion politics, saying, “I don’t think they [Congress] will let Romney pass any laws against abortion.”
Jeff Doresch, who owns a small business detailing cars, was angry. “Obama is shutting us all down. He’s destroying us with tax increases.” When asked how his taxes had fared under Obama, Doresch responded, “They’ve stayed the same.”
Eighteen-year-old Andy Egbert and 16-year-old cousin Troy Kloeppel’s family owns 5,000 head of beef cattle. Egbert said, “Romney is going to make more jobs for the middle class instead of sending them overseas to China.” Kloeppel supported Romney because he was opposed to welfare fraud: “It’s a great system if it’s not abused.” Egbert chimed in, “A lot of people are lazy and are paid to do nothing.”
Jason, a local soybean farmer, said, “I like everything about Romney.” Why didn’t he like about Obama? “No Obamacare,” he said before quickly departing.
A businessman worth a couple hundred million dollars was telling a white audience that a president who is changing the country “in ways we don’t recognize” was stealing their money for job-killing programs like Obamacare. In a warm-up talk, Ohio Gov. John Kasich railed against “bureaucrats” and “California rules.”
The audience knew what they meant. “We” – white America – are besieged by liberals using our tax dollars on undeserving poor, dark people. This attitude is often expressed as a crude or violent desire to eliminate the other, such as with the spate of “chair lynchings.” At the rally one vendor hawked toilet paper with Obama’s face on each sheet. Another sold buttons that read, “Forget your cats and dogs, spay and neuter your liberal.” Jeff Doresch said, “With Obama, if there’s another four years, it will be like when Hitler was here.” A few hours west of Sidney, near Fort Wayne, Indiana, a highway billboard showed a picture of armed commandos with text that read, “The Navy SEALs removed one threat to America … The voters must remove the other.”
But it’s not just about aggression. In his one effective moment, Romney painted a vision of a beloved, exclusionist community. He told a story about an American flag that went up in the Challenger, which was recovered intact after the shuttle exploded and that “was like electricity … running through my arms” when he touched it. He turned the secular symbol into a holy one that embodies “who we are.” Romney said, “We’re a people given to great causes. We live our lives for things bigger than ourselves.” That “who,” was people in the military, “a single mom,” “a dad taking on multiple jobs.” Finally, he said, “We’re taking America back.”
There’s little doubt that Romney will double down on decades of bipartisan policies that benefit plutocrats. But that’s not what the audience in Sidney heard. Romney offered an easy-to-grasp explanation that spoke to their years of suffering, their unease with the present state of affairs and their anxiety about the future.
An election or two down the road the appeal to white tribalism may no longer work due to shifting demographics, but it could triumph this November.