My first reaction to the now-famous Washington Post story of how an 18-year-old Mitt Romney bullied and assaulted a fellow student at the prestigious Cranbrook School was personal. The story is well known by now. Romney objected to John Lauber’s bleach blonde hair, draped over one eye, and organized fellow students to tackle and pin down the “soft-spoken,” nonconforming student while Mitt himself snipped way at the offending locks. I was bullied for years in middle school and high school, and have never forgotten the experience. I understood the story and context viscerally, on a personal level.
But the personal is almost always political. The more I thought about it, the more I saw the story in a political context; and the parallels between Romney’s prep-school bullying and the politics, policies, and tactics of present-day conservatism became clear.
First, the personal. When people ask what growing up was like for me, I usually give them this thumbnail sketch: “I grew up a skinny, effeminate, nonathletic, bespectacled, black gay boy. In the south. During the Reagan era.” Invariably, they respond one of two ways. They shudder with the knowledge of what that experience must have been like for me, growing up in an extremely conservative region during an extremely conservative era. Or their eye’s grow wide with horror, and they ask me “How did you survive?”
How, indeed. It wasn’t easy. I usually tell people that about five minutes after I realized I was gay (around the age of 12 or 13) I looked around me and had another realization, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.” But I didn’t get the hell out of there until years later. For most of my middle school years, and some of high school I was bullied, physically and verbally harassed, and psychologically tormented on a daily basis. Like another of Romney’s classmates, my attempts to speak up in class and participate were often meet with remarks that were the 80’s versions of Romney’s “atta girl.” One of the teachers even joined in sometimes. The physical and verbal harassment got so bad that I failed P.E. for a couple of semesters, because I refused to “dress-out.” That would mean going into the locker room. And since teachers rarely entered the locker room, It was like stepping into Lord of the Flies. I
No one took scissors to my hair, but I could relate to the terror John Lauber must have felt, evidenced by the screams and tears described by others who witnessed the incident. I could relate to knowing what was coming, and the utter helplessness at being unable to stop it. I could relate to the horror of realizing that no one else was going to try to stop it, and knowing that the perpetrators would suffer no consequences.
Like Lauber, I never forgot my experiences. I never told anyone about most of it, because I learned early on that they would probably a) not believe it, b) minimize it as “boys being boys” or “just what kids do,” c) tell me to “just ignore it” or “toughen up, and d) even suggest that I somehow brought it on myself — that it was my fault, and that I somehow deserved it. After I heard all of that from my own parents, I gave up.
My experience mirrors almost exactly what the impact experts say bullying has on kids, and LGBT kids in particular. According to StopBullying.Gov, bullied kids are:
- more likely to experience depression and anxiety that may persist into adulthood;
- more likely to experience health complaints
- more likely experience decreased academic achievement.
A 2009 Yale study suggested that bullied students are 2 to 9 times more likely to take their lives. For LGBT students, bullying can increase the risk of self harm.
I grew depressed. I came home upset and angry. I invented excuses not to go to school. I was too afraid of the consequences of cutting school, but I faked being sick as often as I could get away with it. Sometimes the anxiety of going to school and facing it another day was enough to really make me sick.
Eventually, I became suicidal. I ended up in a therapist’s office not long after my mom heard me say that I wanted to take a gun to school, blow the other kids away, and then use it on myself. It probably saved my life.
The confidentiality of our first session made it safe for me to say to him, “If we’re going to do this, there are two things you need to know about me. First, I’m gay. Second, I’m not here to change. that.” Once he got over the shock of hearing that from someone so young, he said to me, “Why don’t we work on the whole person, and just let that part fall into place where it will.” He basically said to me “It’s OK.” He was the first adult ever to say that to me.
From personal experience, I know bullying is first and foremost about power. StopBullying.Gov defines bullying as a “unwanted or aggressive” behavior that “involves a real or perceived imbalance of power.” In fact, an imbalance of power is inherent in defining behavior as bullying.
In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:
An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
Bullying basically comes down to the old principle, “Might makes right.” Or, put another way, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
From the playground to prep school to the political arena, the old principles don’t change much. The old principles have become the ethos of contemporary conservatism. That’s why “bullygate,” as Jay Michaelson calls it, matters.
Finally, there is the clear linkage that Romney’s bullying draws between the meanness of the bully and the meanness of the latter-day conservative. Life is unfair, they say. Sometimes people are just losers. If they can’t afford health care, let them die. And if they can’t stick up for themselves, well, they deserve to get beaten up.
This is the ethos both of the bully and the bull-market ideologue: the weak, the poor, and the wretched probably deserve it. And in any case, better to let them suffer than to risk too much compassion or care-taking. I’ve got mine, and too bad that you don’t.
The “Some people are losers” sentiment itself echoes Rick Sanetlli’s infamous rant against subsidizing “the losers’ mortgages, and in favor of giving money to “the people who have a chance to actually prosper down the road.” It’s hard not to note with bitter irony that instead we subsidized, and are still subsidizing the bad bets of losers like JPMorgan Chase and Jamie Dimon. The “losers” are homeowners hardest hit by the very subprime debacle, foreclosure fraud, and rampant robosigning driven by Wall Street dealmakers like Dimon. The “winners” are guys like those working the phones behind Santelli, on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, and like guys like Dimon himself. Santelli divides Americans into people who “carry the water” and people who “drink the water,” and its clear the latter could die of thirst for all he cares. (Or drown with their “underwater” mortgages.)
Santelli’s is not the only familiar echo. The ethos of today’s conservative right can be heard in the cheers of “Let him die!” from the audience at Republican debate, when Wolf Blitzer queried Ron Paul about the fate of an uninsured theoretical thirty-something young man. We heard it in cheers of the audience at another Republican debate, where Texas governor Rick Perry touted his record of executions. We heard it when Herman Cain joked about electrocuting undocumented immigrants. We heard it in the cry, “We are the 53%!”
We’ve heard the conservative ethos from Republicans in Congress. We heard it in the remarks of countless congressional Republicans, that the unemployed are “lazy,” drug addicted parasites simply to lazy to got out and get a job. We heard it when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s speech on economic inequality focused on “how we make sure the people at the top stay there.” We heard it in Speaker John Boehner’s succinct response to question about the number of jobs the GOP’s budget cuts would kill: “So be it.”
The conservative ethos has its origins, in the conservative worldview described by George Lakoff, in which material wealth and well-being is an indicator of moral strength, poverty and want are indicators of moral weakness, moral strength is to be rewarded, and moral weakness is to be punished. That worldview forms the basis of what Sarah Seltzer called conservatism’s “victim-blaming script,” which has its own basis in what psychologists call the “just world fallacy.”
The process is simple. It begins with the assumption that outcomes in various situations are guided by some unseen, universal force of justice or stability — be it God, the Market, or both. That assumption gives rise to a tendency to “assign negative moral value to those who suffer.” Seltzer describes in detail how that process played out with the murder of Trayvon Martin, as conservatives not only convinced themselves that Martin “had it coming,” but tried to convince the rest of the country as well. The process can be and has been employed to blame victims of violence, rape, and bullying for their fates.
The assumption that wealth and power are indicators of moral strength and virtue make it easy to assume that bad things must happen to people because it’s what they deserve. The assumption that people deserve whatever happens to them makes it easy to dismiss broad injustices. Once we can safely, and in good conscience, dismiss broad injustices, it becomes even easier to perpetuate them.
Thus is the Bully Economy born.
The Bully Economy
Social activist “Mother” Mary Jones, borrowing from humorist Finley Peter Dunne, once said of her work, “My business is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” The Bully Economy, in which politics and policy are inform by today’s conservative ethos, flips this script — the already comfortable are further comforted, and the already afflicted are further afflicted.
The same “just world” fallacy that makes it easy to blame the victims of violence, rape, and bullying for what happened to them, makes it easy to blame the poor, the unemployed, and uninsured for their fate — and to deny any external, systemic causes of those conditions. Problems that have no systemic causes,it follows, don’t require systemic solutions. That’s where politics and policy come in.
From the “just world” fallacy, we go back to Lakoff’s definition of the conservative worldview:
Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.
To understand the role of government in this worldview, let’s return to the bullying frame. Lakoff uses the family as a metaphor to describe the role of government in the conservative and progressive worldviews. Along the same line, I’m going to use the school playground as a metaphor to explain the difference between the role of the government as you and I probably understand it, and the role of government in the Bully Economy.
Bullying on sometimes goes unnoticed and unchallenged on the school playground, but ideally a teacher or school administrator who sees a bigger child bullying a smaller child will intervene. Whether the bigger child is kicking the smaller child off the monkey bars or shaking him down for his lunch money, the teacher’s role is clear: to stop the bigger, stronger children form taking advantage of the smaller children who can’t really fight back.
The playground rules in the Bully Economy are a bit different. Before, the teacher’s job was to keep the bigger, stronger children from running roughshod over the smaller, weaker children. Now, the teacher is more inclined to favor the bigger, stronger children. After all, protecting the smaller, weaker children would just impede the bigger, stronger children, and deprive them of the freedom their entitled to by virtue of their size and strength. Again, “the strong do what they will,” and “the weak suffer what they must. Hell, on this playground the teacher might even demand the smaller kid give the bigger, stronger kid his lunch money.
As Lakoff explains, when it comes to the economy this means promoting unimpeded economic activity, and “favoring those who control wealth and power” and “who are seen as the best people”; the “job creators,” the “producers” and such. Government regulations impede the right of those who control wealth and power to use that wealth and power any way they see fit. That especially goes for consumer protections and environmental protections, intended to protect the interests of ordinary citizens from violation by bigger, wealthier, more powerful “corporate citizens.”
The best citizens are rewarded with lower taxes. And since government shouldn’t do more than protect the country, promote unimpeded economic activity, and maintain order and discipline, tax cuts can be paid by reducing or eliminating social programs designed to help and protect low-income, middle- and working class citizens.
It doesn’t matter if unemployment has become a national emergency. It doesn’t matter if there are 3.4 job seekers for every job opening. It doesn’t matter if budget shortfalls (and balanced budget requirements) cause state and local governments to cut hundreds of thousands of jobs. Conservatives will vote down aid to states that might keep teachers and first responders on the job, even though the crisis on the state level is turning into a national unemployment emergency. (It doesn’t even matter that aid to state and local governments mostly helps private-sector workers.) doesn’t matter if, in the middle of all this, 230,000 people are about to lose unemployment benefits that are all that stand between them and destitution. It doesn’t matter that these people are merely joining the 490,000 who have lost unemployment benefits.
It doesn’t matter, government is helping the wrong people when it does all these things? Dontcha see? Taken to the extreme (which is where at least some very vocal conservatives want to take it), and the result is an economy and an America rendered unrecognizable.
No government except the police, courts of law, and the armed services.
No regulation of anything by any government.
No Medicare or Medicaid.
No Social Security.
No public schools.
No public hospitals.
No public anything, in fact. Just individuals, each looking out for himself, not asking for help or giving help to anyone.
Perhaps nothing better represents the Bully Economy conservatives would like to make America’s reality than the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, embraced by Mitt Romney, and passed by Republicans in the House and Senate.
Romney showed us his priorities with a budget that includes a 20% “across-the-board” tax cut that essentially requires across-the-board cuts to programs that serve and support the poor, as well as the working- and middle-classes. Romney showed us his priorities with a budget that preserves his 15% tax rate on capital gains and dividends, eliminate taxes on investment income for those earning more than $200,000 per year, and lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%.
Romney showed us what and whom he is willing 10 sacrifice, with a budget that would require cutting non-defense programs by $637 billion in 2016 alone, and $6.5 trillion between 2014 and 2021. Romney showed us who and what he is willing to sacrifice with a budget that would shred the safety net, throwing 10 million off the benefit rolls for food stamps, and leave 30 million without health care coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act.
Romney showed us what and whom he is willing to sacrifice with his embrace of Paul Ryan’s budget. Romney showed us what and whom he is willing to sacrifice with his support of a budget that would end Medicare as we know it, and render America itself unrecognizable.
Most of all, Mitt Romney showed us his priorities by presenting and supporting budget plans that do all of the above without deducing the deficit, but actually increase it by $2.6 trillion
Conservatives like Paul Ryan define this budget — a “Robin-Hood-in-reverse” budget that literally comforts the already comfortable, and afflicts the already afflicted — as a moral document.
Romney’s tax plan would cut revenue by some $4.9 trillion over a decade, less some unspecified loophole closings. Millionaires would pocket an average tax cut of $250,000 and those making $10,000 to $20,000 per year would end up paying an average $174 more in taxes.
If Social Security and Medicare were protected for those near retirement, as Romney sometimes suggests, then the domestic side of government—everything from the FBI to food safety to Medicaid and food stamps—would have to be cut by over one half in 10 years. Romney can sell that plan only by denying its effects.
The Bully Economy reflects their ethos, their values, and their desire for an America where economic might makes right for those who who control wealth and power; “where the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Taking it Personally
Or do they? I’ve written about how desperation and despair have driven Europeans from Greece to France to refuse to be bullied into austerity. Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett, writing in the New York Describe a “Human Disaster of Unemployment” that sounds like a prelude to what man Europeans have already experienced. The impact of long-term unemployment, due to “de facto austerity” in the U.S., sounds a lot like the impact of bullying on its victims.
- Older male workers experience a 50 to 100% increase in death rates in the years following a job loss.
- A recent study found that a 10% increase in the unemployment rate increased the suicide rate for makes 1.47%, leading to an additional 128 suicides per year in the U.S.
- The duration of unemployment is the driving force in the relationship between joblessness and suicide.
- Studies have linked unemployment to increased risks of health complaints, psychological problems, and divorce.
- The impact is felt for generations, as children whose fathers lose a job when they are kids have reduced earnings as adults.
Ultimately, like bullying itself, the Bully Economy is a vicious cycle.
My own experience taught me one thing. Bullies don’t stop if you ask them nicely. They don’t stop if you give them what they want. They don’t’ stop out of the goodness of their hearts. They stop when people stand up to them, and refuse to be bullied or to allow others to be bullied.
It looks like Europeans have learned the same lesson. If our government trades “de facto austerity” for the real thing, my guess is that Americans will learn the same lesson; sooner, rather than later.