Some truths are so important that they bear repeating. One such truth is that for as long as the Republic has existed, the key to an understanding of American politics has been race. This truth was once again borne in upon me by the extraordinary video that has surfaced of Mitt Romney's impromptu talk to a closed meeting of fat cat Republican donors. [A second, subordinate, truth of contemporary American public life is that everything, without exception, has been captured on a handheld device by somebody or other and can be counted on to surface when least convenient.]
Romney's surreptitiously recorded speech is widely viewed, on the right as well as on the left, as having put paid to any lingering dreams the Republicans might have had of winning the election. As Tallyrand is reputed to have said about Napoleon's murder of the duc d'Enghien, it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder. What can Romney have been thinking when he casually dismissed 47% of Americans as free-loading moochers incapable of caring for themselves and slavishly beholden to Democrats throwing them slops? Never mind that Romney had his facts completely wrong. I think we have become accustomed to that. But in the midst of an election that he is currently losing, what can have possessed him to speak condescendingly and contemptuously of a tad less than half of the American electorate?
The answer, as always, is race. Let me repeat what I have written here before. Both before and after the Civil War, poor whites in the South and also in the North, bemired in a socially and economically disadvantaged position in American society, consoled themselves with the thought that however poor they were, however much they were disrespected by their wealthier and socially more prominent betters, at least they were not Black! In both the North and the South, here was a permanent underclass toward whom they could show disdain, whom they could discriminate against, and on occasion whom they could lynch with impunity. That structural fact of American life was written into the Black Codes -- laws that reinstituted de facto servitude after the end of formal, legal slavery; it was written into Jim Crow, into the exclusionary racial covenants that kept Black families trapped in ghettoes, into the racial quotas at Northern colleges, and into the devil's compact between employers and White labor unions that kept former slaves from any chance of securing good industrial jobs.
The success of the Civil Rights Movement in ending Jim Crow, in breaking down the barriers to employment, and in winning the vote for Black citizens deprived poor Whites of their only consolation for their disadvantaged condition, and they reacted with anger, bitterness, and a deep sense of betrayal. It is the bitter residue of this ressentiment that explains the tenacity with which poor and lower middle class Whites vote against their economic interest by supporting Republican candidates whose policies sink them ever deeper into economic despair.
Mitt Romney knew what he was saying when he described 47% of Americans as takers, moochers, free-loaders. He was talking about Black and Brown Americans, and he was talking to White America. The numbers do not matter, nor do the facts. What mattered was a desperate attempt to tap into that deep well of bitterness and try to transform it into a winning coalition of White voters.
Happily, he will fail. But he is not a fool, and what he did was not in fact a blunder. It was one last resurrection of Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy.