How Mitt Romney Cynically Exploits White Tribalism and Resentment
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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.