What's the Matter with Kansas Again?

By: Dr. Nick Carnes Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University Co-Director of the Research Triangle chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network

By now, you’ve probably already heard about the leaked hidden-camera video of Mitt Romney at a closed-door fundraiser in Boca Raton last May. In the video, Romney makes some telling remarks about a trip to a factory in China and some off-color remarks about his (lack of a) Latino background. The comments that pundits have seized on most aggressively, however, are Romney’s remarks about Obama supporters and government spending. In the video, Romney says:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what . . . There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it.

The New York Times website declared the comments “a Distraction as [Romney] Tries to Hit ‘Restart’” on his campaign. A CNN editorial pondered “What’s behind Mitt’s meltdown.”  On Monday night, Romney held a hasty press briefing to clarify his remarks at the fundraiser, which he described as "not elegantly stated” and “off the cuff” but nonetheless indicative of “a message which I am going to carry and continue to carry.”

One of the most interesting debates that has emerged in the 24 hours since the video went public has centered on the question of whose remark was worse, Romney’s 47% comment or Obama’s infamous ‘cling to guns and religion’ remark in 2008. Everyone agrees on the obvious similarities: both comments were made in front of wealthy donors, when the candidate thought the cameras were off, and when the candidate was probably exhausted from spending weeks and months on a grueling campaign. What people disagree about is whether Romney showed more contempt for ordinary Americans than Obama did. Romney concluded that his ‘job is not to worry about those people.’ Obama said that ‘our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives.’

Regardless of what you think of the two candidates’ contempt or empathy, it’s important to recognize that they both conjured up a negative stereotype about lower-income and working-class voters—and helped to perpetuate it. To Obama, the working class in Pennsylvania was hooked on guns and religion. To Romney, the working-class across the country was hooked on government handouts. Both statements cast the working class in a very unflattering light. And although both are flat wrong—neither one stands up when we look at objective data—both narratives are still a part of the vocabulary of U.S. politics, and both resonate with at least some Americans. On both sides of the aisle, it’s fashionable in some circles to disparage the political intelligence of lower-income and working-class people. Books posing as legitimate research (like the discredited What’s the Matter with Kansas) don’t help the situation. But negative stereotypes about rural, low-income, and working-class Americans really get a boost when people hear them coming out of the mouths of high-profile politicians.

Republicans and Democrats alike are guilty of blaming the success of their opponents on the supposed shortcomings of working-class Americans. That’s a kind of prejudice that we have to start dealing with as a country. If we’re ever going to do that, our public officials—on the Right and the Left—are going to have to stop clinging to the myth that there’s something the matter with Kansas.

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