"Government Dependency" vs. The Common Good: The Debate Republicans Are Really Scared Of

The video released of a Mitt Romney closed-door fundraising event last night was eye opening - but only for people who did not already know that Mitt Romney has a core disdain for not simply for people who need a hand up to climb the ladder of opportunity but the entire social compact itself that provides that ladder of opportunity.



Yes, it's shocking that a candidate for president from a major political party would hold 47% of Americans in such contempt. Yes, it's baffling that a candidate for president would at once berate economic hardship and condemn a helping hand for people to use for the ladder of opportunity. Yes, the optics are bad when you have a candidate born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a silver boot stuck up his... well, anyhow... calling other people moochers.

But if we simply view this event as a campaign mistake, or a floundering candidate, we will have missed a chance to really discuss the gaping gulf in the two economic visions that are being offered for America - not just in this election but for the future of our country. If we fail to take this opportunity to understand and reject the rebranding of equal opportunity and social responsibility as "government dependency," we will have failed to comprehend what this debate is really about.

The far Right conservative movement, which has vigorously defended Mitt Romney's comments, has tried to radically redefine the common good and the social compact as "government dependency" for decades, and Mitt Romney's comments are nothing more than a statement of that belief. And that's the point. For all the "surprise" in the media about this candid cam moment of Mitt Romney's, the only surprise here is that anyone is actually surprised that this is what Mitt Romney actually believes.

What Mitt Romney verbalized has been the economic mantra of the Republican party - at least throughout my entire lifetime. He does see 47% of Americans as freeloaders. He believes that those who qualify for child tax credits or the opportunity tax credit to raise their families, are elderly or make too little to pay federal income taxes (although they still pay payroll taxes, which Mitt Romney does not) have it too good. He believes that children and poor seniors who are on Medicaid are a social ill. At his core, he even believes that Social Security and Medicare need to be phased out since those, too, create "government dependency."

I assure you that the disdain that the Republican party and the radical Right has for the common good does not end at programs designed directly to help the poor, students, the elderly, and children. It extends to a much broader radicalism. Mitt Romney represents a party that in the past few years have not only advocated for ending the social safety net but obliterating our investment in our future and our infrastructure: they voted en masse against the President's Recovery Act that invested in building and repairing our roads and our broadband infrastructure, against expanding Pell grants and the Child Tax Credit, and even against closing the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap. You see, all of that, in the eyes of Mitt Romney and the radical right, is "government dependency."

Mitt Romney and the radical right have a vision for this country. Theirs is a vision that sees the New Deal and the Great Society as the great evils of American society, not its building blocks. Their is an outlook that views all government assistance - except for those going to the ultra wealthy and big corporations - as "creating dependency" on government. Theirs is an America where the minimum wage is seen as a hindrance to wealth creation, where unemployment insurance is seen as an incentive to be unemployed, health care for the poor is seen as a waste of taxpayer dollar, and aid to students is seen as a threat to the oligarchy they wish to establish.

The radical right - which now controls the Republican party wholesale and whose economic wing has always counted Mitt Romney as one of its most prominent members - is a movement that has always viewed the expansion of economic opportunity to all as a threat to rich, white supremacy (yes, you bet, a huge part of it is racist). It has always viewed the roll of government in such expansion as a threat to their "freedom" (to put 'those people' in their place). The radical right has always rejected the American social compact - a commitment that in America, we value individual success but also that as a society, we would ensure that the door of opportunity is open to all. The notion that we are responsible for ourselves, but we're also responsible for each other and for our country has never sat well with the Right. The ideas that seniors deserve a dignified retirement, that no child deserves to go hungry and that no one should go bankrupt because they get sick are foreign to wingnuts.

The vision of America that President Obama and progressives champions is based on a view of this country which celebrates both individual achievements and what we can do together. It is a view that sees, correctly, that in order to spread and grow the blessings of opportunity, we must invest in our common good with our common wealth (taxes).

That is not something this radical Tea Party wants to see us follow. Their vision is based on a drastic redesigning of the American promise. It is one where wealth itself is moral, and thus whoever has it is moral. If you are poor, it's your own fault, and they see no role for the government to help open the doors for you. If you're a student who has done well and gotten into the college of your dreams but your family doesn't have the money to pay for it, there must be something wrong with you. If you get sick and lose your job, and therefore your health insurance, pray about it. If you ever want to retire, you better find a way to do it on your own and forget about social security. But on the other hand, because wealth is itself moral, the government exists to serve those that are moral - i.e. the moneyed elite.

The very idea of common good is sneered upon by the likes of Mitt Romney. Investing in the common good? Why, that's socialism! Benefiting from the common good? That is mooching on government dough. You're a single parent and need school lunches for your children - or even the child tax credit? Get a (third) job!

It's time we progressives used this open door to spark a conversation - a conversation about just what we do through our government. Take Mitt Romney's comments to a logical conclusion (but not an ideological one), and you will see that every single person is "dependent" on our common good, on our social responsibility, or in essence, government in some form or other.

If your house catches fire, do you expect to be able to call 911 and have the fire department show up? Do you expect the police to show up if you get robbed? Do you expect there to be public schools for your children? Do you expect that in the winter, the city will clean up the streets of the snow? Do you think you deserve to be protected from corporate fraud or from lead in your drinking water? Do you think that after a lifetime of work, you deserve to retire with a minimum shade of dignity? Hell, if you start a business, do you expect to be able to protect your intellectual property, or people from stealing your ideas? How do you think we do all that? All of it is something we do together, funded through taxes, through a level of government.

Is all that "government dependence"? Or is that the common good? If it is dependence, it is to the extent that we are all dependent on one another. For our individual successes, we depend on an infrastructure and society we build together, for the common good. Our individual successes are both building blocks of and built on top of a great society. And because we build that common good together, we are responsible to give back to maintain and expand that circle of opportunity. We call that responsibility taxes.

Let's not forget that no one receives more in "government largess" than the uber wealthy and big corporations. The oil industry gets a $4 billion subsidy every year. Mitt Romney pays a lower tax rate than most middle class families because his income comes from investment rather than work. Our public universities educate the workers that make money for the big firms. Defense contracting is big business.

The revelation of Mitt Romney's comments gives us, as progressives, an opportunity. And it is not just an opportunity to defeat the radical, fundamental right in an election. It is an opportunity for us to spark the debate in this country about taxes, the common good, investment in our country, and building an opportunity society. We should use it as an opportunity to show the American people how the Right has redefined the common good as "government dependency," and it's time for us to reclaim the all-American concept of the common wealth for the common good.