The past few weeks have not been kind to Mitt Romney. For Mitt, April may have been the kindest month; September the cruelest. At the midpoint of the month – the point when four years ago the economy ran aground – a video revealed Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser saying that 47% percent of Americans paid no income tax and depended on government for handouts. While it is unjust to say that he doesn’t care about this near majority, it made it clear that he doesn’t much care for them. Mitt suggested that all these votes were in the pocket of the President leaving a frighteningly narrow path to a potential victory.
As one political commentator suggested, it is bad enough when you don’t like the candidate, but far worse when the candidate does not like you. The comment played into the narrative of Romney the patrician. Of course, Obama at a 2008 San Francisco fundraiser scorned rural white voters who held to their guns and their Bibles. Like so many campaigns before, we are witnessing a race between two ivied titans. Sarah Palin, student at Matanuska-Susitna College and graduate of the University of Idaho, would never have uttered these words or thought these thoughts.
But put aside whether Mitt cares about these 47% dependent, as he asserts, on the corrosive largess of government, and put aside the question of whether these citizens are as economically rational as he suggests. Voters, left and right, routinely do not vote their pocketbook, but their hearts. There is much false consciousness about.
One might ask how insightful is Mitt Romney as his own strategist? I have been waiting – in vain – for a poll that compares the voting preferences of the 47 percent to the 53 percent. My unsurprising guess is that Mitt will do better among the 53 percent electorate as compared to the 47 percent electorate (just as Romney might well carry the majority of the white male electorate), but I also suspect that Romney’s lead among the 53% and gap in the 47% would not be as large as he – or we – might imagine.
Take the 53%. This figure includes (sometimes overlapping) groups of affluent Blacks and Hispanics, Jews, teachers, feminist intellectuals, academics, trial lawyers, Silicon Valley computer programmers, nostalgic financial services executives, gay and lesbian ministers and generals, non-starving artists, psychiatrists, and Hollywood producers. If Mitt Romney hopes to receive 95% of the 53%, well, fat chance. In contrast, the 47% are especially likely to reside in red states, where they are over 51% of the voters and these states remain Romney’s bedrock. Elderly voters are sweet on Mitt, as well as some others who depend on government support. If it is 53/47 and fight, Mitt has a tussle.
Yet, there is another sense in which the magic number 47 is prime. Not as a percentage of citizens who rely on government, but as warning to American democracy. As an Illinois voter, I have observed this campaign with some amusement and much detachment. Like most Americans, my vote will not matter as long as a smattering of other Illini take their civil responsibilities seriously. I don’t live in one of the battleground states where the election is being fought. I should be grateful that I am not bombarded and bamboozled by political ads (as it happens, we don’t have a race for governor or senate, and my congressional district is not competitive). This could be 2013 as far as commercials go. I am an outsider to democracy. Most Americans are in my position. It is said that perhaps eight states are battleground states, a number that might overstate the matter. Should this geographical chasm between red and blue continue, I can imagine a presidential election in a not so distant year in which only three states matter. The other 47 watch. An election limited to residents of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. This is not science fiction, but political science.
Back in 1960 Richard Nixon heroically – if naively – announced that he would campaign in all 50 states, and this is a promise he kept, even if he traveled where the outcome was certain, such as Alaska in the last week of the campaign. Perhaps his itinerary cost him victory in the razor-thin election. But I have always respected Nixon’s commitment to a truly all-American democratic process. Today who would campaign in Idaho or Oregon, Mississippi or Vermont?
Given the perverse prevalence of early voting, we might, in reality, pick a winner and then have a campaign. Our system, as currently rigged, seems designed to avoid the national political dialogue and debate that should be central to selecting a leader. Perhaps we will elect the president we deserve, but not together. We are destined to avoid deliberate consideration of our choice.
We need candidates who speak to all voters and voters who listen to all candidates. We need a system of voting in which citizens in every jurisdiction have a meaningful role (bye-bye statewide Electoral College), and we need an electoral process in which we vote as a community, and not as individuals who vote if they can fit the chore into their busy lives.
We need a political system that brings us to 100.