As you've no doubt heard, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was secretly recorded conflating some conservative arguments into a single clumsy talking point, one that is both factually and ideologically inaccurate.
When Romney says he believes that 47 percent of voters don't pay income tax, "believe that they are victims," think "government has a responsibility to care for them" and will never "take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he is confusing the average voter with the average Democratic National Convention speaker. Most Americans, no matter what party they're in, do not aspire to be parasites, despite the best efforts of their elected representatives.
But Romney's remarks compelled critics to forward the equally preposterous claim that government dependency doesn't affect elections at all.
To begin with, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that increases in dependency and entitlements do matter. If handouts were irrelevant, politicians wouldn't promise to relieve people of their burdens—from student loans to mortgages. They wouldn't hand out ethanol subsidies or corporate tax breaks or union bailouts.
Take welfare. Yes, welfare increases have a lot to do with the serious downturn—and also plenty to do with an administration that believes it's more moral to put people on the dole than get them off. And about 110 million Americans received some form of welfare benefit in 2011. As The Washington Examiner reported this week, a Congressional Research Service report found that the number of able-bodied adults on food stamps has doubled since President Barack Obama suspended work requirements in welfare reform.
Many among these 110 million Americans—many there through no fault of their own—will vote to protect welfare.
Then there are taxes. Riddle me this: If government is, as I often hear, the arbiter of fairness, the engine of economic opportunity and the guardian of equality, why are fewer and fewer people offering alms? As the Tax Policy Center points out, in 2010, 41 percent of tax returns filed had no income tax liability—which represents more than 58 million income tax filers. Yes, the complexity of our technocratic tax code, built by both parties, has a lot to do with who pays and who doesn't. The vast majority of those without any income tax liability aren't mooching at all.
But that's not the entire point.
In 1990, approximately 21 percent of returns had no tax liability—half the number we see today. The median income of nonpayers has increased by 40 percent over the past decade, while government has nearly doubled its budget. Many feel free to vote to expand government disconnected from the burden and cost. Someone else—perhaps at some other time or maybe in some other bracket—will deal with the cost. No doubt, this isn't the driving motivation of most voters, but it matters.
A new Gallup poll finds that, by a 54-39 percent margin, voters claim that government is trying to do too much, as opposed to not doing enough. Yet Obama—if we concede for a moment that mainstream media have it right—is winning. Winning with a campaign focused predominately (when not talking about Romney's shortcomings) on the idea that Washington should reallocate wealth to those fleeced by this terribly unfair system.
It is improbable that most Obama voters cast a ballot with the expectation that government is going to shrink. It is far more probable that many of the president's voters believe that reallocating personal wealth, rather than growing national wealth, is what makes an economy strong and gives them a better shot at prosperity.
So though Mitt Romney's ham-fisted contention was wrong, it doesn't erase a corrosive dynamic in American politics. There are plenty of voters who believe they can get something for nothing. Plenty.