On the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, a video surfaced of Mitt Romney telling donors that the nation is divided based on the amount of federal income tax we pay. Speaking at a Florida dinner, the Republican nominee for president imposed a metaphorical quarantine on the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income tax and who, he said, “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
In the past year, many members of the “1 percent” were no doubt surprised to learn from Occupy Wall Street that they are at war with the vast majority of their fellow citizens. Quite a few of the 76 million American “tax units” without federal income tax liability were perhaps equally perplexed to discover that they are too lazy to take responsibility for themselves.
Henry Adams famously described politics as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” What we have here are two examples of the systematic organization of stupidities. Both the “1 percent vs. 99 percent” and the “makers vs. takers” slogans are ideological constructs born of ignorance, mythology, and the tribal arrogance that results from spending way too much time with people like yourself.
This is a larger problem for a political party than for a protest group. Whether Romney believes what he said or was pandering to his audience is beside the point. Surely he understands that more than half of those who pay no federal income tax—28 percent of all U.S. households—pay taxes for Medicare and Social Security, and many pay taxes at a higher rate than Romney himself. (Because these are payroll taxes, by definition the people who pay them all have jobs.) An additional 10 percent of households pay no federal income tax because they are receiving nontaxable retirement benefits—the benefits both presidential candidates have promised to protect. Roughly 7 percent pay no federal income tax or payroll taxes because society has determined that they need every last cent.
Race, class, sex, religion, and ideology are all dividing lines in American experience. Those divisions will be exacerbated from time to time, with elections in particular providing ample invitations to friction. But Americans are more than the sum of our prejudices and demographics.
The task before both Romney and President Obama is to assert common bonds and aspirations with greater frequency and conviction in the weeks before November. A progressive tax code, in which all contribute relative to their means, is a hallmark of a decent society. Few Americans wish to dismantle it. Likewise, the nation’s social compact might be frayed, but this is no civil war; we don’t need another Lincoln. A little respect should suffice.