Political Animal


March 08, 2012 4:21 PM Is Mitt Waging Generational Warfare?

By Ed Kilgore

On Super Tuesday, as Daniel Luzer noted at College Guide, Mitt Romney told a high school student worried about college costs that he’d better “shop around” for low tuitions, and not expect any help from the federal government.

It was rather churlish, but also ignorant, as Daniel explains:

The problem with this is not necessarily that it’s awkward to say “I don’t care” to a student, though surely it was. The problem is that his advice demonstrates a certain foggy understanding about the way American education actually works.
Most people can’t “shop around” for college. About 80 percent of American undergraduates attend public institutions. Most people (about 56 percent of them) go schools within 100 miles of their parents’ house. The problem isn’t that students aren’t shopping around. It’s that all the stores are too expensive.

But Jonathan Chait noticed something else: the crowd listening to this exchange at an Ohio factory loved it.

Chait figures that wittingly or unwittingly (and with Romney you never know if he’s a programmed robo-pol or suddenly just winging it), Mitt’s fishing into the troubled waters of generational and ethnic resentment that seems to have gripped conservative older white voters of late, savagely resenting any government help for younger or darker folk while fiercely defending their own federal benefits:

The glue holding together the contemporary Republican agenda - the fierce defense of entitlement spending on the elderly, the equally fierce opposition to welfare spending on the young, the backlash against illegal immigration, the nationalist foreign policy, the cultural traditionalism - is ethnocentrism. Republicans are defending the shared cultural prerogatives of a certain group of people.

This theory was probably best articulated by Thomas Edsall in an 2010 TNR article which has now been expanded into a book called The Age of Austerity. According to his dystopian vision, we are entering a period when limited public resources and deep generational and racial/ethnic divisions turn the two parties into warring coalitions of tribes, each representing hungry constituencies.

I don’t buy the whole idea, but a lot of it makes sense, and furthermore, explains better than any other theory the continuing anomaly of government-hating conservatives attacking ObamaCare as a plot to steal Medicare dollars from old folks and give it to the undeserving young and poor. What I’d mainly add to that meme is the iron-clad conviction of many, perhaps most, Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries that their government checks and subsidies are earned benefits they deserve from a lifetime of payroll taxes and virtuous hard work, while all those other government programs are “welfare.” This factor also undergirds the efforts of Republicans (it’s not clear yet whether they will work) to buy off senior opposition to their own absolutely genuine and radical proposed changes in Social Security and Medicare by “grandfathering” current and near-term beneficiaries.

I’m sure Mitt’s got a polling memo on all this stuff in his briefcase or his hard drive; whether he’s read and absorbed it is anybody’s guess. But you can expect a lot more of this tactic from Republicans in the future—particularly in midterm elections when old white voters rule.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • JMG on March 08, 2012 4:25 PM:

    It's hospice politics. The Republican Party: We'll help channel your fear and anger at approaching death.

  • T2 on March 08, 2012 4:37 PM:

    my late mom told me that, although she favored many Democratic positions, she'd never vote Democratic because the wanted to turn the country over to the "blacks and mexicans". And with Barack Obama, they actually did.
    I think of mom's statement every time I read something like Chait's. Simply put, racist people in this country are Republicans, if for no other reason than they are racist. Seems too simple, but that's it.

  • boatboy_srq on March 08, 2012 4:44 PM:

    Anyone watching the demographics numbers for the last couple decades could have seen this coming. Florida, and to a lesser extent, Nevada and Arizona, are microcosms of the situation. For the last thirty years, if you wanted to see Florida voters become enraged, all you had to do do was say "education budget" or "early childhood education" or the like in their hearing. No place was more opposed to spending public dollars on schools - precisely because there was the perception that their tax dollars were being spent in a way that didn't benefit them. Florida sat in the bottom 10% of education - both in terms of budget and any/all literacy metric - for all that time for a reason: the predominantly older voter population steadfastly refused to allow any funding for items they did not consider immediately valuable to them (e.g. Medicaid/elderhealthcare, law enforcement, traffic/roads, etc).

    I would say that it would be a real treat to see the younger generations take an equivalent position on elder issues, but Conservatist Boomers and Gen-Xers seem to be doing pretty well with that already.

  • schtick on March 08, 2012 4:50 PM:

    What would Willard or any of the other 1% know about shopping around for a college education and how it actually works? They come from families that bought and paid for the sheepskin they received without any of the merits of earning anything to get it in the first place.
    The supporters that cheer this garbage on are not only racists and bigots, they think they are just one scratch off away from joining the 1% club.

  • massappeal on March 08, 2012 5:26 PM:

    Isn't Ruy Texeira's work the best argument why Edsall's prediction likely won't come true?

    Every year a couple million older, whiter, more conservative than the general electorate voters dies. Every year, about four million younger, darker, more liberal than the general electorate voters turn 18.

    Romney's audience (and electorate) may be filled with anger and resentment at the younger generation(s), but (and this may simply add to their rage) they're increasingly outnumbered.

  • candideinnc on March 08, 2012 5:30 PM:

    This generational politics is cr*p for everyone. The Rethugs play on the older people's insecurities about Social Secutiry and Medicare, and at the same time try to get young people upset and resentful claiming Social Security and Medicare won't be there for them when they are older. Rethuglicanism is the politics of fear and envy. The Dem's don't do themselves any good whatever by siding with one generation or the other in this conflict. There was a time when we saw that socially responsible spending is good for everyone.

    I am on Social Security now. We need to tell our children they may need this in their old age, too, and these are not "entitlements," as you blithely report, but really are the investments we have been taxed for throughout our lifetime. But whether this is "deserved" has absolutely nothing to do with support of other necessary public policy programs relating to such things as education, poverty and public health.

    Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt made it clear to the people that taxes used for the benefit of the people is money well spent. If the Democrats could do this again, they could start to win back the middle class. If they try to play off the greed of the people, they lose their souls and ultimately will see the destruction of all these vital programs.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 08, 2012 5:43 PM:

    You know, it occurs to me that in some ways the 2010 election could be the gift that keeps on giving for the Democrats. Republicans aren't going to address their structural issues for several election cycles now. Rove? He helped get that liberal GWB elected, so no true believer will listen to him.

    I wonder how small their vote share has to get before they accept that voters really don't like their policies?

  • Redshift on March 08, 2012 5:48 PM:

    The Dem's don't do themselves any good whatever by siding with one generation or the other in this conflict.

    But that's the flaw in the "warring coalitions of tribes" argument (caveat: I haven't read the actual article, I'm just going by the description here.) The Democrats aren't siding with one generation or the other. Republicans are desperately trying to make this a battle between the "tribe" that tends to support them and everyone else, but Democrats aren't fighting against the Republicans' "tribe"; in fact, they're supporting policies that are better for both groups, because they're not hamstrung by the idea that taxes must be cut.

    Basically, the GOP's tactics with older white folks are similar to what they've done with evangelicals since Reagan, and possible Nixon -- get them riled up by telling them they're under attack so they support the GOP, and then screw them once they get in power to hand government money to the rich, whether through tax cuts or social security privatization.

  • hells littlest angel on March 08, 2012 5:53 PM:

    Young people just have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, you know, like Romney's sons did.

  • Bloix on March 08, 2012 6:03 PM:

    But Florida and Arizona retirees are different from older people in Ohio. In Florida and Arizona, the retirees' own children and grandchildren live somewhere else. The Florida taxes they pay don't go to educate anyone they know. In Ohio, the old people's kids and grandkids are right there. And they still hate them? That's very odd.

  • Peter C on March 08, 2012 6:18 PM:

    My daughter is a freshman in college studying Engineering. Her annual tuition, room and board is $54,000. Median Household Income in the US is $51,914. How are people to pay this when they are barely keeping their heads above water now?

    There is a problem here, and it is real, and shopping won't fix it. And, as much as old white guys want to snarl about it, IT WASN'T AS EXPENSIVE BACK IN THEIR DAY!

    (Captcha says 'winning radvote' - is this the Republican's strategy?)

  • Peter C on March 08, 2012 6:36 PM:

    The 'shopping' comment is especially galling given the fact that a degree from a top university does make a difference; it makes it easier to land a top-paying job. It really is a key to social mobility. For the super-rich to say, "don't bother trying to get the best for your kids, shop and choose the bargain community college!", is just saying, "don't bother with the American Dream, it's too expensive for the likes of you."

    A market-based model for education just lets the 1% stay on top, because they can afford to.

  • thh on March 08, 2012 6:57 PM:

    The approving response of the audience to Romney raises two factual questions that perhaps Mr. Kilgore could address in a further post:

    (1) Is it possible that the members of the audience went to college (for those who did) at a time when the level of state support, as a percentage of public university expenses, was far higher than it is now? The members of the audience may not realize how much more of a public subsidy their generation had than the current college generation has.

    (2) When the members of the audience think that they paid for all the Medicare and Social Security benefits they are now receiving, what are the actual statistics on taxes paid in the past (in payroll and Medicare taxes) compared to the benefits (from SS and Medicare) they are currently receiving? In other words, are they currently being subsidized above and beyond what they actually paid in taxes before they retired?

  • TCinLA on March 08, 2012 6:59 PM:

    Republicans are defending the shared cultural prerogatives of a certain group of people.

    Yes indeed. Old. White. Undereducated. Men. Over 55. These are the guys who grew up in an America where even if they were undereducated, they were always better than any ni**er, spic, dago, etc., by the fact of the accident of their birth. They grew up in a comfortable world where those people and the wimmen and the damn queers knew their place, and that's the way it was supposed to be. Only for the past 45 years, it hasn't. All those uppity folks now think they're better than we whites who built this country, and the accident of my birth doesn't give me the privileges I was born to deserve. I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK. MY WHITE COUNTRY.

    And of course they don't like colleges because all them college boys been lookin' down they noses at these good patriots who went and killed them gooks when and where they were told to and followed orders like everybody told them to, and now they deserve what they have and those traitors do not!!

    Pathetic bunch of old losers - they were pathetic back when they were young losers.

  • Dave Porter on March 08, 2012 8:45 PM:

    We've (I'm turning 65 this month) been paying 15% into Social Security, plus more for Medicare, for some 30 years now. And 7.5 of that 15 percent has gone straight into the general treasury in exchange for an annual Treasury bond
    payable to the Social Security Fund for "enhanced benefits."

    No finite date or amount for those "enhanced benefits," though. And it's awful hard to save ten percent of your income for your retirement when your tax burden is in the 30% range for income tax, plus another 15% for Social Security.

    Unless, of course, your income is over $110K per year, when you're not paying anything into Social Security on the excess amount, and you can rig your income to look like "capital gains," and "carried interest," and thus
    avoid anything more than 15% taxation instead of 45%!

    Sweet, if you're rich. Compound 7.5% year after year, and then do away with the estate tax. And we wonder what happened to America as a democracy...

  • Kathryn on March 08, 2012 10:22 PM:

    Churlish is just the word to describe Mitt Romney. I've seen way more of Mitt Romney this campaign slough than I care to without really trying. So who is the real Mitt Romney? My impression, pretty nasty and cold. He really is the guy who shoved an Irish Setter in a kennel for a twelve hour drive to Canada, that dog did not climb up there himself. Then when the, no doubt terrified, dog developed diarrhea (sorry to be so graphic), he stopped the car, hauled him out, hosed him and kennel off, put him back in the kennel for the duration of the drive, chop, chop, back on schedule.

    What do Mitt Romney or his audience of seniors know about college costs for the struggling middle class and worse, why are they so comfortable proving they don't care? So I guess Mitt doesn't worry about the poor nor does he worry about kids of modest means going to college, don't look at me kid, you're on your own, I got tax breaks to enact.

  • $2Bill on March 08, 2012 10:32 PM:

    Add to the disposition of this 'certain tribe' a lifetime of always being wrong. They believed Vietnam was a 'noble effort', they said Nixon was 'The One', they thought MLK took his orders from the Kremlin. History rebuked them. They bought Reagan's sunshine & got left with Iranian arms dealers, Bush, read my lips, lied about taxes, & Bush the Lesser was so bad they won't even mention his name. Reality betrays them such that even when they win they lose. It drives them mad. Angry, you bet, resentful hell even vengeful, for to be convinced they were right all along they must perforce be anti historical & that retrograde attribute may be their most damning & defining characteristic.

  • moodmovesmarkets on March 09, 2012 1:01 AM:

    The worst of the Baby Boomer generation is likely to make it difficult for the rest of us for another ten years or so. Knowing that we're nearer the end than the beginning of that story is at least a little heartening.

  • candideinnc on March 09, 2012 6:57 AM:

    The irony is that Mitt and the Thugs have succeeded in generating animosity between the generations, as is clearly evident in these foregoing responses to this blog. The real problem is the one percent, not the elderly, not the young.

    Reagan was a lousy president, but he signed the bill that Congress sent him for increased revenue to pay for the increased costs of Social Security. Our current cowardly mix of congress-critters can't raise tax because they signed the notorious pledge of allegiance to the wealthy. If we made the necessary minor adjustments in tax revenues, the Social Security program would certainly be secure for generations to come. If we made the single payer option the law, Medicare would be safe for generations to come. If we returned to a tax base on the top ten percent and corporations what they had been under Reagan, we could pay for the education of our young. But the Thugs are making this a battle between the young and the old as a divide and conquer strategy.

  • Sean Scallon on March 09, 2012 10:33 AM:

    It cuts against Ron Paul too. He's the perceived candidate of the "young people" among Republicans.