Mitt Romney as a Horatio Alger Myth: You’ve Got To Be Kidding

There is currently an effort underway by moderates and conservatives to normalize Mitt Romney and make him seem to be a hard-working contributor to society, just like you and me.  This effort is following some traditional patterns for asserting that wealthy capitalists are just exceptionally hard-working, smart, driven folk, that these qualities are the cause of their wealth, and thus justification for it — which erases birth, connections, luck, and other factors that truly make for great wealth.  You should, of course, decide for yourself, but it is vital to keep the record straight and our view of Mitt Romney clear, especially during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

David Brooks at the New York Times says that the Romney family history is a story of persistence in overcoming adversity to achieve success, and he cites Romney’s persecuted Mormon ancestors and his father’s early difficulties to garner sympathy for him.  This is basically a variation on the Horatio Alger tales of the Gilded Age, when robber barons would rationalize their monopolies with myths and overstatements about rising from poverty to the pinnacle of success through smarts, hard work, discipline, and drive, all the while claiming to be the true source of America’s growing industrial strength.  (Never mind that their wealth depended on skimming from the efforts of impoverished laborers, many of them immigrants, most who toiled endlessly but did not rise.)  Brooks asks: Is Romney an out-of-touch member of the one percent, with a character of entitlement formed by a lifetime of wealth, ease, and luxury? His answer:

“The notion is preposterous. All his life, Romney has been a worker and a grinder.  He earned two degrees at Harvard simultaneously (in law and business).  He built a business.  He’s persevered year after year, amid defeat after defeat, to build a political career.

“Romney’s salient quality is not wealth. It is, for better and worse, his tenacious drive — the sort of relentlessness that we associate with striving immigrants, not rich scions.”

What is preposterous is Brooks’ continued tenure at the New York Times, but that’s a theme for another day.  Brooks gives a hagiography of the Romney family, but it is hollow: most of our ancestors had it hard in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, because life was generally harder then.  If you weren’t part of the one percent, you probably toiled in a factory or farm, or had a hard-scrabble life as a pioneer, and if you were black or “ethnic” or Chinese or American Indian you were thoroughly oppressed and persecuted.  The Romney family history as settler Mormans isn’t anything special — it reads like my own family’s history, which includes a pioneer and many hard-working people who made and lost a fortune or two.  The only difference is that my father didn’t make it rich and manage to stay that way, bequeathing me with easy access to the best schools, upper-class connections, and a fat inheritance.

David Brooks is trying to make it out like there is no class issue here, which is just clumsy propaganda.  Mitt’s father George Romney was a wealthy automobile executive in the mid-twentieth century: he was CEO of American Motors in the 1950s, governor of Michigan in the 1960s, and a Nixon cabinet secretary.  So whatever adversity the Romney family faced was long over by the time Mitt arrived, and Mitt started life with money and connections.  His is not a rags-to-riches tale.  What’s really important, of course, is a Romney’s own history and character, not his ancestors’.  Romney did not claw his way to the top as a Steve Jobs-like innovator and entrepreneur who created useful products, new industries, and the jobs that go with them.  (That’s even doubtful about Jobs.)  Romney made his fortune as a Gordon Gekko-like corporate raider, acquiring existing companies, busting them up, firing workers, selling off the pieces, and skimming the profits of those sales.  And he was never at any real financial risk: leveraged buy-outs were executed with other people’s money, borrowed on the fire-sale value of the very company targeted for future destruction.

And note how Brooks has to turn to ancient family history to find any real defeats: that’s because Mitt Romney hasn’t personally had any.  He’s never been unemployed, or poor, or made do without health insurance, or gone hungry, or been unable to pay bills.  All Brooks can cite as an example of Romney’s “persistence” is that he’s had many defeats in his political career, but kept going.  That’s not persistence in the face of adversity, that’s simply political ambition, and Romney has enjoyed luxurious wealth the whole time.  Winning the presidency is not an easy thing and takes many years, often decades, of planning and effort, with success never guaranteed.  Brooks seems to think that simply trying to win that office is somehow a sign of a magnificent character.  But everything else in Romney’s life tells a different story, and the public record ought to reflect that.  Mitt Romney is an out-of-touch exemplar of the 1980’s “greed is good” rationalization for economic destruction.  That must not be forgotten at any moment during the 2012 campaign, both as a matter of morality and justice, but also as good political strategy at a time when economic hardship is widespread.

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