The Republican National Convention this week had the challenge of marketing a political party whose election would benefit only the super-rich and would devastate the living standards and health of all other Americans. Romney’s and Ryan’s acceptance speeches, scripted by Karl Rove and rapturously welcomed by the delegates, made grandiose promises they had no intention of keeping, while carefully omitting any substantive details of their policies.
Ryan’s speech in particular was so full of lies that even Fox News had to point them out. As Juan Cole put it: “He has to get people on his side who would be hurt by his policies. And that requires that he simply lie to them.” Both Ryan and Romney sought to persuade them to have faith in a superior Republican “leadership” which could reverse the recession, restore prosperity and protect the social safety net. Ryan promised to recreate “the America that was given to us, with opportunity for the young and security for the old.” Romney promised to “restore that America.” This nostalgic vision of the “Mad Men” era was calculated to appeal to the old, the white, and the disgruntled: “If you’re feeling left out or passed by, you have not failed; your leaders have failed you,” said Ryan.
Romney tried to humanize his image with stories about the importance he gives to family and family values – at a moment when his election would kill Medicare and remove government support for education and retirement. Ryan portrayed himself as a small-town, middle-class individual, raised from poverty through his own hard work, creating a picture designed to identify with the very people targeted by Republicans. “Trust us, because we are just like you” was his message: “My Dad, a small-town lawyer… Mom, who rode the bus to Madison …” and had to rely on Medicare after the death of his father. But this, like the rest of his speech, was a lie.
The LA Times observed: “Ryan, 42, was born into one of the most prominent families in Janesville, Wis., the son of a successful attorney and the grandson of the top federal prosecutor for the western region of the state. … Ryan’s rise to political power and financial stability was boosted by family connections and wealth. The larger Ryan family has repeatedly helped the candidate along in his career, giving him a job when he needed one and piling up tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Court records indicate Ryan’s father left a probate estate of $428,000 …. The will leaves the bulk of the estate to Ryan’s mother, who now lives in an oceanfront condo in Florida.”
Ruth Conniff, a journalist with the Progressive magazine, noted the reaction of the delegates. “They loved him. They love his confidence, his poise and, most of all, his ability to make this incredibly Orwellian argument, to emote, to connect with working-class people like his constituents in his incredibly hard-hit industrial district, and then to take that and sell policies that are absolutely devastating to these same people. … he is the smiling face of this incredibly brutal Darwinian set of policies that the Republicans are presenting to us. And the fact that … he can flip through graphs saying that cutting taxes on the rich is going to bring back jobs and make America great again, and just his delivery, his relaxed demeanor and his humor, it’s what people love about him. And it’s really dangerous.”
The Republicans are lying through their teeth out of desperation. Their demographic base is shrinking; it’s 98% white, while other ethnic groups are rapidly becoming a majority. They want to gain power at all costs to transfer the remainder of society’s wealth to their plutocratic backers, and legislate to delay the inevitable reckoning with the expropriated. Harold Meyerson wrote a pungent article in the Washington Post charging the Romney campaign with attempting to rouse the demographically declining population of white voters – using attack ads falsely claiming Obama to be gutting welfare reform – with resentment of African Americans and Latinos. Ryan’s budget “would bring the nation down to the developmental level of the anti-tax, anti-public-investment Southern states of yore,” he said.
“To the extent that Republicans can depict government as the servant of this rising non-white America (precisely the purpose of Romney’s ads), the South’s antipathy toward government can find a receptive audience in other regions,” Meyerson continues. “This transformation of the GOP has also been spurred by the Southernization of the economy. The U.S. economy’s dominant sector is no longer the unionized manufacturing of the Northeast and Midwest, whose leaders included such Republican moderates as George Romney, and whose white working-class employees were persuaded by their unions to back Democratic candidates. Instead, the economy is dominated by a mix of the low-wage, nonunion retail and service sectors, and by high finance, which has shown itself fiercely opposed to regulation and taxation, happy to reap and shield its profits abroad at the expense of U.S. workers, and willing to invest plenty in a party that does its bidding.”
Resentment of government has other roots. Cap Times writer Paul Fanlund summarizes the work of political scientist Katherine Walsh, who found support in rural Wisconsin for cuts in government because residents believed it failed to represent their interests. “[T]hey would argue that it instead was operating to benefit other people: sometimes the wealthy, but also people who were undeserving largely because they did not work hard enough for the government benefits they enjoyed.” “Deservingness” was often defined by whether program recipients were perceived to be hard-working people like themselves, she writes, adding: “If one wishes to mobilize opposition to a government program, one powerful way of doing so is to suggest that the recipients of that program are predominantly people of color.”
She concludes: “Some of the conversations I observed strongly suggest that racial attitudes were playing a part in opposition to government programs.” Race came up just as often in urban and suburban conversations, she emphasizes. “It’s so easy for us urbanites to write off their attitudes as simply racism. That is only part of it. The rural consciousness I describe is about a broader ‘us versus them’ perspective that is effective for mobilizing opposition to government programs.”
Republican rhetoric about self-help and individual effort resonates with this ideology of the undeserving poor. However, many Republican voters are unaware of the extent of government support for their communities. Political scientist Dean Lacy found that the more a county receives in federal government payments, the more likely it is to vote Republican. Salon editor Joan Walsh comments: “As Lacy elaborated to a WNYC reporter: ‘The counties that are getting more in crop subsidies, housing assistance, and Medicaid payments are a lot more Republican. So it really is about that catch-all category that you might call welfare.’ Yet because their local congressmen and women tend to defend that type of ‘welfare,’ Lacy says, ‘they have the luxury of voting on social issues knowing that these federal spending programs will be kept in place’. Except those programs won’t be kept in place by the new GOP, which is committed to trashing even the economic supports it used to (however hypocritically) defend.”
Whoever wins the election, there will be a major struggle over government social programs which are immensely popular with all sections of society. Whatever the Republicans’ intentions, this is their last chance to win an election with an appeal to angry white men. The party will not survive in its present form – times they are a’changin’. Communities that are plunged into this fight will be able to make alliances across the ethnic and class lines that the Republicans historically have used to divide them, asserting the values of solidarity in a common cause.
Already, grassroots groups have formed to promote community action on basic needs, like housing and food. They will grow rapidly as social conditions worsen. There’s no need to run for the Canadian border: the future Americans can look forward to is one of struggle, but there is a world to win.