There’s a common view that the clandestine video of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” speech revealed “the real Mitt.” But why should we assume that? How can we know? We can never read someone else’s mind.
There is one thing we can know, though: Politicians tend to tell audiences what they want to hear. A good politician’s stock-in-trade is a knack for summing up an audience’s shared narrative more effectively than the folks in the audience themselves can do it. Why shouldn’t that be just as true of Romney at a small gathering of super-rich donors as a huge crowd of gun owners or Tea Partiers or teachers?
And why shouldn’t it be just as true of Barack Obama in 2008, when he was captured on clandestine video talking to super-rich donors about industrial workers facing permanent unemployment: “It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
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We’ll never know if Obama really believes that, either. But there’s a good chance that he knew what story his audience wanted to hear. So both of these infamous video clips probably do tell us something significant about what elite liberals and conservative donors believe and the messages they send to their masses.
Taken together, they look like a pair of messages that have no connection with each other. Like skew lines in geometry, they can go on forever and never meet at a single point. So they reveal the huge failure to communicate that marks our current political discourse.
If I remember rightly, conservatives responded to Obama’s ’08 remarks with insulted outrage, as if to say, “This is absurd. You don’t know what you’re talking about. We won’t even dignify that nonsense with any effort to disprove it.” Liberals have offered a similar sense of insulted outrage in response to Romney’s recent remarks.
In neither case did the offended side say, “OK. Let’s take your narrative seriously, unearth the assumptions behind it, and use it as a springboard to identify the most important issues that divide us. Then we can discuss those issues on their merits and demerits. Let’s make that debate the central issue of this electoral contest.”
The comparison is not perfect, because liberal journalists have gone into great detail proving Romney’s facts wrong. Many non-income-taxpayers will not vote for Obama, and many income-taxpayers will. Romney will carry many states that get more from the federal government than they pay in, while Obama will carry many states that pay in more than they get back.
But those facts don’t refute the main thrust of the conservative narrative, which isn’t about amounts. It’s about attitudes: the purported “sense of entitlement” versus the equally purported “sense of responsibility.” And there’s no way to disprove that story, just as there’s no way to disprove the liberal story. They are both, in the philosophers’ terminology, non-falsifiable.
Of course political parties have been creating non-falsifiable narratives about their opponents throughout American history. The classic example is the first: In the 1790s, Federalists insisted that Republicans wanted to plunge the nation into the same kind of bloody revolutionary chaos that had engulfed France; Republicans insisted with equal fervor that Federalists wanted to turn the nation into an English-style monarchy.
Then, as now, these were claims about the supposedly deepest beliefs of the other side. Since nothing the other side said could effectively refute those claims, the two sides simply hurled their charges at each other. The substantive issues dividing them, which might have been effectively debated, never had a chance to dominate the public conversation. So there was too little genuine conversation and too much of the parties talking past each other.
In the 1790s, the analogy of two groups speaking different languages, with little interest in learning each other’s language, was not far from the truth. Nor is it today.
However there are a couple of very important differences between the infamous Obama and Romney remarks to donors.
Though Romney’s words in private were rather more blunt (“inelegant,” as he put it) than his words in public, there was little in the substance of his narrative that we haven’t heard from him in public settings. And that narrative elicits cheers and jeers from the GOP faithful every time it’s told again.
Obama’s private words of ’08, on the other hand, have rarely if ever made it into the public arena. I suspect that’s because they aren’t very effective fodder for evoking cheers and jeers at public rallies, since they are not really an attack on conservatives.
Taken in context, they are a rather sorrowful explanation (from a liberal perspective, of course) of the roots of conservative attitudes. They cast the blame for the social attitudes of the conservative masses on the failed economic policies of conservative elites. They don’t do what Romney did: blame the victim.
The other great difference between the two infamous remarks is that many of Romney’s factual claims can easily be refuted, as we now know. Conversely, there is a substantial, academically respectable body of psychological data and social theory that tends to support (though not definitively prove) Obama’s claims.
The data show that conservatives, in general, tend to want predictable order and structure because they have trouble tolerating ambiguous situations. They are more inclined than liberals to follow norms and rules and to plan and organize their activities. So they feel more troubled than liberals by unstable systems, while they are less open to new (hence unpredictable and unstable) experiences.
One well-known explanation for all this data comes from the prominent conservative social theorist Peter Berger. He argued (to make a very long story far too short) that humans naturally treat their familiar cultural structures (such as “God and guns”) as immutable objective truths, because that’s the best way to make sense out of the constant flood of stimuli that would otherwise overwhelm and paralyze us. That may not be true of all people, but the data show that it’s significantly more true of conservatives than liberals.
If Barack Obama doesn’t know this combination of data and theory (and he very well might), someone in the West Wing surely does and could explain it to him quick enough. So it looks like Obama has missed a golden opportunity. He could tout his “God and guns” message very publicly and live up to the common caricature of him as a professorial lecturer. Yes, he would incur the wrath of conservatives, but probably no more than he has in any event. So there would be no appreciable political loss.
The political gain would be to create a new narrative on the liberal side, where there is now (let’s be honest) plenty of blaming the victim. The new narrative would disagree with the political and social values of conservatives but show compassion for the people who hold them and especially for their economic plight. Imagine how that would elevate the public discourse, change the political landscape, and perhaps help nudge undecided voters toward the Democratic side.
Obama has missed another opportunity too, at least so far. He could challenge Romney to back up his story about the 47% with facts and make the resulting debate the center of the campaign. No, the president could not disprove Romney’s main points. But it would give him another way to put the spotlight where he wants it to be: on the stark contrast between the candidates’ competing narratives. And it just might open the door to a real debate about the merits and drawbacks of their very different political stances.
Instead, so far, the president has merely echoed the liberal emotions of insult and outrage. He has perpetuated the failure to communicate. That’s a shame.
But hey, we still have three “debates” coming. Who knows? Maybe somewhere in there we will get a genuinely substantive debate, the stuff that democracy is supposed to be made of.