One thing every politician is supposed to display is empathy, the ability to put oneself in the place of others and see things from their perspective. Empathy is a habit of mind, but it's also a product of experience. It's hard to see things from another's perspective if you know absolutely nothing about their lives. But even if you have no direct experience, if you have the proper habit of mind you can at least take whatever information you've gleaned and make some attempt to understand people.
Keeping that in mind, I give you Newt Gingrich, talking about why he thinks child labor laws ought to be done away with so we can start putting kids to work as janitors and such:
"Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash unless it's illegal."
Read that again. Newt believes that if you live in a poor neighborhood, there is no one you know who works. He actually seems to think that in poor neighborhoods, everyone is just sitting around, except for some drug dealers. What can you possibly say to something like that?
Now, it may be that Newt isn't such an idiot that he actually believes that. Maybe he's just pandering to the prejudices of his audience. As Benjy Sarlin pointed out yesterday, Newt's campaign is being built on old people, and being that he's running in the Republican primary, that means old white people. Telling old white people that kids today, particularly black* kids today, are a bunch of lazy nogoodniks who don't know the value of a day's work is going to get you a lot of nodding heads.
But this is an excellent case study in how Newt operates. He comes up with a crazy idea -- why not make poor kids clean the toilets in between classes at school? -- then when challenged, he comes up with a rationale for the crazy idea built on an even more insane and factually wrong socio-cultural analysis. The fact that the more he talks the crazier it gets only matters if he isn't telling you what you want to hear.
*Now, for the racial element. Newt is not explicitly saying black people are lazy. But the fact is that in America, when you say "poor," people hear "black." Although most poor Americans are white and most recipients of anti-poverty assistance like food stamps and welfare are also white, most white Americans think that most poor Americans and welfare recipients are black. Furthermore, when the media discuss poverty, they disproportionately show black people to illustrate their stories. All these facts have been extensively documented with public opinion surveys and media analyses, perhaps most notably in Martin Gilens' excellent book Why Americans Hate Welfare (reviewed in the Prospect here). The idea of the shiftless undeserving poor lacking only in the proper values and ambition is inextricably tied to race. I'm guessing that whether Gingrich is familiar with this research or not, he's perfectly happy to evoke those racial stereotypes in his intended audience of grumpy old white people.
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