It has always been hard for people with strong opinions to tolerate the discipline of electoral politics, which demands that they never speak their minds in public. Say what you really think, and you are bound to alienate some of the votes that you need to win. But it's getting harder: Even at private gatherings, today's politicians are likely to be secretly video-recorded, so they must NEVER reveal their true opinions.
The latest victim of this rule is Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency. He needed to feed some red meat to the people who had paid $50,000 a head to attend a fundraiser in May in Florida. Most of them doubtless believed poor Americans are shiftless, Palestinians are evil, and Iranians are crazed fanatics, and they were not paying to have their views challenged. Still, he should have been more careful.
Blaming the failure of 19 years of negotiation to bring a peace settlement in the Arab-Israeli dispute entirely on the Palestinians was not going to get him in trouble at home. "The Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace," he said, which would be seen as a distortion of the truth in most parts of the world, but it does no harm to Romney domestically. Indeed, lots of Obama voters think that, too.
Same goes for the bizarre scenario he drew about the alleged threat from Iran. "If I were Iran -- a crazed fanatic, I'd say let's get a little fissile material to Hezbollah, have them carry it to Chicago or some other place, and then if anything goes wrong, or America starts acting up, we'll just say, 'Guess what? Unless you stand down, why, we're going to let off a dirty bomb.' "
This is only one or two steps short of expressing a fear of werewolves, but in the United States this sort of discourse is routine. The U.S. Department of Defense regularly uses equally shoddy and cynical arguments to justify its huge budget. Romney will not get into any trouble with the electorate for this "gaffe."
Where it all went wrong was when he said that "There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," referring to the Americans who don't pay income tax. "There are 47 per cent who are with (Obama), who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."
The audience at the fundraiser obviously believes that, and it's pretty likely Romney believes it himself, but it is simply not true.
If all of the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay income tax automatically vote for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, then the Republicans can never win an election. At least not unless EVERYBODY who pays income tax votes Republican, which seems pretty unlikely.
Surely some taxpayers must vote Democratic, even if they are only Latinos, African-Americans, gays, women, Asians, union members, and effete eastern intellectuals. And some non-taxpayers certainly do vote Republican. In fact, the Republican Party's core strategy for decades has been to win white, working-class votes by stressing its conservative social values. Without their votes, the last Republican president would have been Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But Romney actually dismissed the importance of those voters, although white, working-class voters who are unemployed or underemployed, and pay no taxes, could make the difference between victory and defeat for him. So could retired people too poor to pay taxes, who are often social conservatives.
It was especially reckless of Romney to couch the whole discourse in terms of who pays taxes or doesn't. This from a man who has refused to release more than the past two years of his own tax returns. Why endure all the criticism about not releasing the past five years, say, if there was nothing to hide in the returns for the preceding years? Like, maybe, the possibility that Romney paid no tax at all in those previous returns.
The people who pay no taxes in the United States are the very poor and the very rich, and Romney certainly falls into the latter category. If he paid no tax at all in 2007, 2008 and 2009, say, he would have fallen into the 47 per cent in those years. So should we conclude that he voted for Obama in 2008?
Probably not, and we can feel a certain sympathy for a man whose supposedly private remarks, shaped to appeal to an ultra-rich and ultra-conservative audience, have been dragged into the public domain. But he should have known better. Almost invisible to him, there was another group of people in that room who were not rich at all: The people who waited on the tables of the mighty.
It was almost certainly one of those helots who took the video of his talk. They are getting in everywhere.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
Here's a closer look at the numbers:
As of the latest accounting, it's actually just over 46 per cent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center (PDF). Here's how that breaks down:
Low income -- There's no income tax if your income falls below a certain threshold. For a family of four, that threshold was $26,400 last year.
Benefits for the elderly -- Some Social Security payments are not taxed as income. The elderly also get an extra standard deduction that lowers their taxes, in some cases to zero.
Benefits for the working poor and children -- These include the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, and the child care tax credit. Because of these special benefits, a family of four (two parents, two children) earning up to $45,775 last year would not have had to pay income taxes, primarily because of special credits for children.
Other benefits -- This includes itemized deductions, tax credits for education, and the income tax exemptions for everything from disability payments to interest on municipal bonds.
It's also important to note that income tax is just one of several federal taxes.
The payroll tax, which funds medicare and social security, is another big source of revenue for the government. And most households that don't pay income tax do pay payroll tax.
Among those households paying neither income tax nor payroll tax, almost all are either elderly or earning less than $20,000 a year.
Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR