Ironically, in the now-famous video that seems likely to end his political career, it could be said that Mitt Romney was speaking truth to power.
Of course, “speaking truth to power” is a phrase normally used to describe courageous souls who risk their own hides to take a principled stand challenging those in power — not exactly what Mitt was doing.
Rather, assuming he was speaking privately to like-minded multi-millionaires, the Republican presidential candidate told the $50,000-a-platers what they wanted to hear: that he hasn’t any intention of helping the 47 per cent of Americans too poor to pay income tax. “My job is not to worry about those people.”
With this truthfulness caught on tape, Romney has probably done more than incinerate his own presidential bid. He has so vividly exposed the cynicism and greed that lies at the heart of what is now called “conservatism” that he may have inadvertently begun its undoing.
Once upon a time, “conservative” could be used to describe people — Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark — who had a vision of society in which a privileged elite dominated but also had a responsibility to less fortunate citizens and to the broader “public good.”
But about 30 years ago, a new breed of “conservative” slithered onto the political scene. Stealing the moniker of conservatism, this new breed embraced the inequality of traditional conservatism (driving it skyward) while unburdening itself of the responsibility for others and the public good.
This new breed has proved itself to be self-centred, greedy and indifferent to the public good.
John Kenneth Galbraith cut to the essence when he described this “modern” conservative as engaged in “the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
Vast sums have been spent on pricey think-tanks to develop pseudo-sophisticated theories about how the benefits of modern conservatism will “trickle down,” in the hopes the public won’t notice the benefits are actually gushing up.
There never was intellectual honesty or coherence to modern conservatism, which is why Romney could cast half of Americans as freeloaders for failing to pay tax while using the Cayman Islands for his own massive tax avoidance schemes — the full details of which remain better hidden than the torsos of the Royal Family.
Modern conservatism — or neo-conservatism — has infected Canada too, coming to fruition under the Harper majority government, which has intervened aggressively on the side of corporations against working people, and dismantled vital environmental protections in order to enrich energy mega-corporations.
But could the Romney video finally allow the public to grasp the depth of cynicism not just in Romney but in the wealthy donors, who make up the backbone of the conservative movement? Despite their vastly privileged lives, they seem resentful of the freeloading lower orders, some of whom can be seen on film rushing about in white gloves dutifully serving the wealth creators.
Such pull-back-the-curtains moments are rare. Another intriguing one came to light recently in the discovery of letters written by multi-billionaire Charles Koch in 1973 when he was trying to lure Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian guru of modern conservative economics, to accept a post at a Koch think-tank in California.
Koch, a key funder of the Tea Party and Romney’s campaign (with a pledge to spend $400 million defeating Obama), has been obsessed for decades with dismantling the U.S. Social Security system — America’s central social program — and has been instrumental in getting it on the Republican hit list.
Yet in letters (recently reported in The Nation), Koch eagerly informs Hayek that he’ll qualify for Social Security and related medicare benefits, so the medical costs connected to his gall bladder surgery will be covered.
Koch even sends Hayek a government pamphlet explaining how to apply for Social Security benefits — benefits that Koch has worked tirelessly to deny to millions of ordinary (freeloading) Americans.
It’s time we stopped treating modern conservatives as proponents of a legitimate political philosophy and started treating them as greedy profiteers who — at least until now — have pulled off the biggest heist in modern times.
Linda McQuaig’s column appears monthly. [email protected]