Posted by Bob Lord
It’s been a brutal couple weeks work-wise, which left little time for blogging. No shortage of material, though.
But I have a little time today to talk about my buddy, Mitt Romney, his enabler, the American voter, and the gluttons of Ancient Rome.
By way of background, I tend to bristle at empty platitudes, and the one bugging me the most these days is about how American voters almost always get it right and how the American voter is “smart.” There’s a spot running on MSNBC where Andrea Mitchell rails against efforts to suppress the vote for partisan purposes. She urges us to encourage voter participation and “let the chips fall will they may” because American voters are smart and will do the right thing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read a political commentator question the wisdom of the American voter. And when Bill Maher does so, it’s considered edgy (it has to be so, or it wouldn’t be suitable material for a comedian).
I’m opposed to vote suppression efforts for a whole host of obvious reasons, but as for Mitchell's assertion about the American voter being smart, what a load of crap. The average American voter gets almost all his / her information from the television, and not from news coverage, but from the 30 second spots that run during prime time. The statistics on this front are truly depressing. In “The Assault on Reason” Al Gore describes how the average American routine is to come home from work, flip on the TV, watch sitcoms and reality shows for four solid hours, retire to bed, then start the whole process over the next day. On weekends, we have sporting events to satisfy our voracious intellectual appetites. But Gore’s take on the American intellect is downright cheery compared to the picture Chris Hedges paints in “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” As Hedges explains, the typical American truly is illiterate, and the widespread illiteracy extends to the supposedly educated segments of society, including college graduates.
In trying to understand how Mitt’s made it this far and how the polls show a close general election race, the waning intellect of American voters as a causal factor is not lost on progressives. Progressives correctly marvel at how American voters are so easily conned into voting against their own best interests. Gun owners vote Republican on the baseless fear that Democrats will take their guns away. Bible thumpers vote Republican because they abhor abortion, even though there is virtually no correlation between abortion laws and abortion rates, or because Democrats don’t share their ignorant bigotry towards gays and lesbians.
But there’s more going on this election. In prior elections, likeability almost always has been the deciding factor, at least where the likeability gap was substantial. When incumbency is added in, a substantial likeability edge has been insurmountable. Why then, in this election, do have polls showing a dead heat? Obama’s likeability advantage is unprecedented. If you don’t count the racist 20% or of Americans, virtually everyone likes him. That’s not the unprecedented part, though. Reagan and Clinton were way up there in likeability as well. But Reagan’s and Clinton’s opponents were not nearly as exquisitely unlikeable as Mitt. As a result, the polling on this factor is off the charts. The last one I saw gave Obama a 64 to 26 edge on likeability. And, remember, Romney’s 26 includes every racist who finds all folks of color unlikeable.
But if likeability were paramount this time around as it has been in the past, the dumbing down of the American electorate would work to Obama’s advantage, as voters would be going less on information and, correspondingly, more on instinct, a dynamic that obviously would drive votes to the more likeable Obama.
What’s different this time around? Hard to say, but my gut tells me it’s the gluttons of Ancient Rome syndrome. The American addiction to material consumption has evolved to a level not seen since the days of the gluttons of ancient Rome. I realize that this sickness only can be acted upon in full at higher levels of income, but the effect of it is magnified in the voting population (as opposed to the population at large), for reasons I‘ll discuss. Moreover, if not for the masses who are hanging on by their fingernails, such that they’re precluded from acting out their gluttony, Romney wouldn’t just be in the race, he’d be leading -- comfortably.
I see the gluttony everywhere. To begin with, as a people, we literally have become gluttons. When we dine out, Tammy and I share entrees and leave the restaurant feeling full. That means the majority of customers, who don’t share entrees, consume far more than they need to satisfy their appetite. Walk into a convenience store, and there almost always will be a special on 44 ounce fountain drinks. When I was a kid, the standard drink size was eight ounces. You think I’m exaggerating? Check out an all you can eat Chinese buffet restaurant sometime. And the proof is in the numbers. The average adult American is something like 40 pounds heavier than his 1960 counterpart. A gym I used to work out at had a really, really old chart, the kind we’ve all seen before, which tells you if your weight is appropriate for someone of your height and gender. On that old chart from a healthier American era, I was at the very outer edge of normal, bordering on fat, yet my friends constantly make fun of me for being skinny. Several years ago I read an op-ed piece, by George Will of all people, in which he did the math on how much oil consumption has increased simply because of how overweight we’ve become in the past 40 years (it takes more gas to power a car with a heavy person behind the wheel). I forget the number, but I remember is was well into the millions of barrels each year.
But our gluttony goes way beyond food. The Republicans I play golf with for the most part are not filthy rich, but they’re doing well compared to most Americans, well enough to stroke a check every month for country club dues. So when they lay the country’s economic woes at the feet of organized labor, I wonder, what is going on here? They really believe that hotel workers making $26,000 per year should take a pay cut so they can take nicer vacations, or perhaps retire to a life of golf a few years earlier. And they’re not bad guys. They just live in a society that is so consumed with material consumption that they’ve lost the ability to empathize with those whose livelihoods they’ve come to believe should be sacrificed to satisfy their own material wants.
Our gluttony is reflected in many of the differences between our society and those of other, seemingly similar, industrialized countries. In Europe, folks are conscious about climate change. In America, a growing portion of the population believes the science of a climate change is a hoax. Why? Because it gets in the way of our gluttonous consumption of fossil fuels and our love affair with long commutes and large vehicles. Similar comparisons could be made regarding our unique attitude toward national health care, wealth and income distribution, and the treatment of the poor and the unemployed.
The gluttony of course is most visible at the top, where conspicuous consumption reigns supreme. Billionaires believe they should pay taxes at lower rates than the rest of us so they can own more luxury jets and throw celebrations where they rent out entire islands for their partying guests. After all, it’s those at the top who typically set the trend for the rest of us.
Here’s how this may translate into Mitt being competitive when according to all historical data he shouldn’t be. The personality flaws that make Mitt unlikeable also signal to voters that he shares their voracious appetites for material goods. Mitt says “Anne drives, well, a couple of Cadillacs,” and voters react in two ways. The first is “what an elitist prick.” The second is “I want a few high-end cars myself.” So, ultimately, their vote may be based on “he’s kind of a jerk, but he’s more like me than Obama, who wants to spend a bunch of money on poor people.”
After all, Mitt Romney is, if nothing else, the personification of American gluttony. He keeps his money in Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Islands investment funds. He has homes everywhere. He has an elevator for his cars. He shows zero ability to empathize with those less fortunate than him. His statements are guided by expedience, as opposed to principles and honesty.
Above all else, Mitt’s personification of American gluttony is reflected in how he achieved his wealth. Mitt and his Bain Capital cronies were far less genius in their investment skills than they were ruthless in their willingness to inflict misery on others to achieve financial gain. It wasn’t illegal when they closed a factory in Indiana in order to coerce the workers to take a fifty percent cut in pay. But it wasn’t ingenious either. It simply required a set of values and lack of empathy that made the personal profit to be gained outweigh the needs of the workers whose lives they turned upside down and, in some cases, ruined. And, as the recent New Times piece pointed out, the factory in Indiana was a mere example of Bain achieved its financial success. Mitt made his money at the expense of others.
I read a book last summer called “The Age of the Unthinkable.” It was very good, but, for some reason, I remember little more than the title. The title, however, has stuck with me, and it applies so well to this election. Not that many years ago, it would have been unthinkable to elect a Mitt Romney who essentially made his money by inflicting misery on others. As a society, we historically have been far too empathetic to see such a character as presidential. And that historical view started at the top. It used to be that the wealthy in our country were the shining examples of empathy and decency. Families like the Rockefellers and the Kennedys enjoyed enormous wealth. They lived well, but they stopped short of engaging in conspicuous consumption and flaunting their wealth.
No longer. We now live in the age of the unthinkable. Those at the top now crave material consumption above all else and their attitude has trickled down to the rest of us. We’ve become the gluttons of ancient Rome. So, if forced to choose between a likeable Barack Obama with his old fashioned views of an empathetic society that believes in equal opportunity for all, and an unlikeable Mitt Romney who shares our insatiable appetite for consumption and who believes, like we do, that no amount of wealth is too much no other American’s pain is more significant than our own gain, Romney may have the edge. These days, when a Mitt Romney achieves wealth by ruining the lives of Indiana workers, it’s ok, because it’s the way we would have handled it if we were in Mitt’s shoes.
Thus, the supposed contrast between Mitt Romney and past wealthy office seekers really is not a contrast at all. The wealthy, like it or not, become role models for the rest of us. In a different age, that role model would be a Franklin Roosevelt, struggling with his own adversities, fighting for the downtrodden, and welcoming the hatred of bankers (and, had they existed back then, private equity rapists like those at Bain Capital). And it’s not hard to vote for a role model. Mitt, like it or not, may be Roosevelt‘s modern day counterpart. It just may be that enough Americans share his gluttonous outlook on life that they will elect him the same way previous generations of Americans elected wealthy role models like Roosevelt and Kennedy.