Earlier this week, a pretty interesting and telling exchange took place at a Mitt Romney town hall meeting. A student asked Romney what he would do to make college more affordable for students who struggle to pay for it. Romney’s reply was jarring:
“It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that,” he said, to sustained applause from the crowd at a high-tech metals assembly factory here. “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”
It’s a brutal response. One reason, of course, is that college is a form of public investment. We have a shared stake in a more educated population, which ultimately produces higher living standards for all. Treating college affordability as a question of simple personal responsibility is an act of collective economic suicide.
But Romney’s answer, and the enthusiastic reception it triggered, also reveals something important about the Republican coalition. Here were Romney, and his supporters, treating a struggling prospective college student with almost gleeful hostility, like a bum looking for a handout:
Romney does not take this position toward all government services. Like the Republicans in Congress, he maintains that Medicare must be maintained untouched for all Americans 55 years old and up – he constantly attacks Obama for being “the only president in modern history to cut Medicare benefits for seniors.” But he proposes to eviscerate the rest of the domestic budget, even more than the enormous cuts in the House budget, slashing tuition assistance, poverty programs, and the like on an unprecedented scale.
In my magazine piece, I including a quote describing some of the sentiments underlying the right-wing belief that programs for the elderly must be maintained while transfers to the young and poor are slashed:
Theda Skocpol, a Harvard sociologist, conducted a detailed study of tea-party activists and discovered that they saw themselves beset by parasitic Democrats. “Along with illegal immigrants,” she wrote, “low-income Americans and young people loom large as illegitimate consumers of public benefits and services.”
That is the context in which to understand the Republican position, which has increasingly coalesced around the defense of public services for its core constituency at the expense of others. As Sen. Lamar Alexander put it during the health care debate, “If you find savings by cutting waste, fraud and abuse in Grandma’s Medicare, spend those savings on Grandma.” Romney may not come from the tea party wing, but he has accommodated himself to its policy demands, and his support within the primary race is concentrated among older Republicans.
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. That is why I am arguing that the shifting demographic tides will require the GOP to undertake a major reorientation in order to maintain its competitiveness. There’s simply no way to transpose their sense of what is and what is not a legitimate government function onto a progressively younger, browner electorate. (Latino voters overwhelmingly support Obama’s health care reform.) Their conception of us versus them can work for a while – it worked quite well with the anomalously old, white 2010 off-year electorate – but the them is rapidly outnumbering the us.