Teatime With the Tea Party
"There’s little point now in trying to suss out whether Mitt Romney is at heart as much a thoroughgoing, Social Darwinist creep as the one he plays for rich donors. After a while, as Kurt Vonnegut once put it, “You are what you pretend to be.” And Romney’s pretenses have now infected not just the Republican leadership but its rank-and-file as well.??"
Just before Mother Jones posted the now-famous video revealing that Mitt Romney thinks almost half the country consists of hopeless “victims and dependents,” and that his life would have been easier had he been born to Mexican immigrants, some friends of mine were maintaining that he really could be a good president, based on his excellent record of containing sprawl in Massachusetts and passing proto-Obamacare there.??
In the same vein, Randy Johnson, one of a group of workers who addressed the Democratic National Convention about their experiences with Bain Capital, insisted, “I don’t think Mitt Romney is a bad man.” Johnson had worked at Ampad—a 104-year-old office-supply company that had been around long enough to have invented the legal pad—before Romney and his jolly privateers at Bain performed one of their patented “chop-shop capitalism” maneuvers on it in 1992. At the time, the company had thirteen branches and thousands of employees. By 1999, it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Johnson and 350 of the people he worked with at Ampad’s plant in Marion, Indiana, were already long gone, given the bum’s rush off the premises by the company’s security force, not even allowed to pause for personal items on the way out. Within seven months, the plant had closed down altogether. Bain—and Romney—walked away with a reported $100 million profit.? Sorry, but in my view an already wealthy individual who dismantles a profitable, long-established company; oversees the treatment of its employees as criminals; and disrupts and impoverishes thousands of lives, is the very definition of a bad man.
There’s little point now in trying to suss out whether Mitt Romney is at heart as much a thoroughgoing, Social Darwinist creep as the one he plays for rich donors. After a while, as Kurt Vonnegut once put it, “You are what you pretend to be.” And Romney’s pretenses have now infected not just the Republican leadership but its rank-and-file as well. ??
Down in Tampa, I interviewed one such soldier, Dona Poelman, a pleasant middle-aged woman who is the vice-chairwoman of the Racine County Republican Party and was attending the convention as a Wisconsin state delegate. Poelman’s Twitter account, which describes her as a “Tea Party-Republican activist, small-biz owner, live-and-let-live kinda gal, dog lover,” still glows when she describes her first glimpse of her congressman, Paul Ryan, who she says “look[ed] presidential” even at twenty-eight. She is also convinced, from her years of work as a human-resources manager, that “pensions don’t work, public or private.” Instead, she’s convinced that the costs of all such plans, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, are “sending our country over a cliff.” When I asked her what she thought might replace them, her immediate answer was, “People used to take care of their families.” As is the case with most Republicans when they talk about what people “used to” do, she was referring to some halcyon time long before her own birth, when extended families lived together in farm communities. When I asked her how such a model could possibly be replicated now that few family farms still exist, her answer was, “And what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did people stop taking care of their families because they could get the government to do it for free?”
The readiness with which Poelman answered made me think she might have been offering me a canned response, and sure enough, a quick Google search for such phrases as “chicken or egg medicare” later exposed it as yet another right-wing talking point, repeated on dozens of websites. I countered with an example from my own family: My late mother suffered a long, painful decline and death from Huntington’s Disease, a malady that altered her entire personality, made her potentially dangerous to herself and others if she neglected to take her medication, and required the constant attention of health care professionals. I added that my wife and I both work full-time, live in a 700-square-foot apartment two states away, and have no other extended family living with us. I was surprised when Poelman seemed stunned into silence. “I don’t really . . . I don’t know,” she said. “There’s probably a middle ground. And hopefully we can find that middle ground.” It was an eminently human answer.?
I felt badly enough for her that I tried to suggest what that middle ground might be, and soon she had rallied sufficiently to recite another string of right-wing sound bites: “Health care accounts . . . comparison pricing of CAT scans . . . More skin in the game . . . Health care was really a credit card someone else paid off.” Blah. And blah. And blah-blah-blah.
I can’t know what’s in Dona Poelman’s heart any more than I can know who the “real” Mitt Romney, Conqueror of Sprawl, is. She seemed like a perfectly lovely person, and I suspect we’d have a fine evening in an airport bar, drinking beer and swapping stories. I like dogs, too, and judging by her headgear in her Twitter snapshot, we even root for the same pro football team. (The Green Bay Packers, professional sports’ only collectively owned team. Or, in Mitt Romney’s new lexicon, the Green Bay Commie Moochers.)?
The Dona Poelmans and the Romneys and the Ryans of the world are not ill-informed, nor are they stupid people living off in the hills somewhere. For a middle-aged woman who has spent her whole life in business and politics to act as though she really believes “pensions don’t work,” or that “people stopped taking care of their families because the government would do it for free,” or that many people are capable of assessing which insurance company might offer the best CAT-scan services for the buck, is to engage in such willful ignorance as to make me doubt her goodwill. And that goes double for her party’s candidates.??
Huntington’s is, to be fair, a pretty rare disease, but dementia is not. Containing its ravages is often a job only professionals can do. We don’t live in extended farm families anymore, and now that Mitt and his fellow capitalist raiders have spent a generation breaking down American companies, slashing wages, and shipping our jobs overseas, few households can get by on a single income and leave someone home to look after grandma. The fact is, even a hundred years ago, the pastoral utopia that Poelman and her fellow delegates want so fervently to believe in didn’t really exist. Rural life was hard and often desperate. (For a telling look at what it was truly like, check out Charles Van Schaick’s photos in Wisconsin Death Trip.) The deprivations and equally hard lives endured by millions of urban Americans led to great movements of progressive social change; some of them even started in Wisconsin. Yet when I asked Poelman why Wisconsin has so often been a crucible of change—generously lumping in nebbishes like Ryan and Scott Walker with the La Follettes—she either wouldn’t or couldn’t respond. She seemed, frankly, to be uninterested in and unaware of the great battles that had taken place in her home state, instead mouthing still more clichés, now tinged with vague regional resentments: “We are the heartland . . . We still have the old American values . . . The country is more and more big cities on the edges and we’re in the middle . . . They call it flyover country . . . We’re the old middle-class mentality.”
Well, just how Wisconsin—first settled by American whites after the War of 1812—can have older American values than, say, New York—first settled in 1624, and freed from British rule in 1783—is beyond me, but never mind. To distort the past, to ignore or discard how we got where we are today, to pretend that all who disagree with us are grifters or slackers, is to make real public debate impossible. It’s to make democracy impossible, except as a yes-or-no vote on purposeful stupidity. ?
It looks, this week, as if President Obama may win that vote. But in so diminishing us, in so trivializing this process, Mitt Romney and his backers have lingered too long to validate any good they may (once) have done.