The 47 Percent Delusion

Romney’s comments reflects a fundamental delusion in American culture

Posted Sep 23, 2012

By now, the leaked “47%” comments from Romney have been covered extensively by our 24-hour news cycle. The majority of such coverage has ultimately been devoid of rich meaning or deconstruction as the commentary has wavered between “cold, hard truth” or “insensitive and out of touch,” depending on the source.

What such comments fail to acknowledge is that as grotesque and misguided as Romney’s candor was, it will not be the final straw in his bid for presidency precisely because his sentiments play into a fundamental delusion embedded in American culture and magnified by Republicans in particular—namely, that the strongest (if not only) influence on whether or not one obtains wealth in this country is based on their will and effort. The rich are heralded as self-disciplined hard workers, while the poor are demonized as lazy freeloaders. Very little attention is paid to forces outside of one’s immediate control, such as the larger culture and society one is socialized in, that significantly impacts economic opportunity and upward mobility (or not).

Don’t get me wrong—of course individual initiative and effort and hard work matters. But, the issue of socioeconomic status in this culture is far more complex than personality. A host of situational and cultural factors significantly impact economic mobility, prowess and socioeconomic status, such as but not exclusive to the wealth (or not) that one is born into, being raised in a two parent versus single-parent home, one’s neighborhood of enculturation, access to resources such as education and other significant socializing agents, government regulations and incentives (or lack thereof), access to healthcare, etc. Not to mention the equally significant and often insidious effects based on one’s race, gender, sexual orientation and/or ethnicity. Oh yeah, and a whole host of other intangibles such has luck, timing, etc.

But when it comes to attributions of wealth in our culture, all of these considerations are dismissed (particularly by Republicans) in favor of the all mighty individual/personality that is heralded as one’s strength or peril, depending on the person’s economic status. In fact, even in a post-Occupy Wall Street culture the majority of Americans (58%) still agree with the statement that “the rich deserve their wealth” (Bellafante, 2012). This is in opposition to the French and British, for instance, the majority of which reject such a statement when surveyed.

Romney has revealed who he is and who he plans on advocating for if he becomes the next President of this country. Voters will soon have to decide if they want to endorse his narrative of the sole factor that makes (or breaks) wealth in this country. And sure, there is a certain appeal to his message—after all don’t we all want to think that we have control over whether or not we will achieve the American dream? Nobody wants to acknowledge that forces outside of themselves may be impacting their personal success. But guess what? Most of us aren't going to become the next millionaires, and you know what? In most cases we can't blame ourselves for lack of trying. 

As the parents of immigrants who came to this country and who left everything they knew so that they could give their children greater opportunities than they had, I believe in the American dream. In fact, my entire family embodies it. However, despite the fact that I have spent years in school and worked hard to gain my degrees and become a professional, I understand that I may not ever make those millions. This isn't a deficit of character on my part, or my parents'. And I would never be so arrogant as to claim that my successes have been the sole product of my individual personality and achievement, because they have not--they never are. Moreover, I also understand that despite my hard work and my parents' sacrifices, I may not make those millions but countless others with perhaps less talent or credentials might (Snooki, anyone?). And that's okay, too, because the essence of the American dream is that there is more than one way to achieve success in this country, and that everyone has a chance.

Research and history dictates that socioeconomic status is far more complex than just individual will, and that no man is an island. We all need guidance and cooperation from our communities to achieve greater things, and yes, even government intervention, whether on a basic infrastructure level or on a larger scale in terms of fair regulations and oversight, to aid in the completion of our economic aspirations. Here’s hoping that voters in November are able to face this cold harsh truth about reality when they make their choice.

Bellafante, G. (2012, September 23, 2012). As Rich as the Devil, but No Gordon Gekko. The New York Times, New York section, 29.