Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mitt Romney: The Last of the Patricians

Those who have been looking for just the right concept to describe Mitt Romney’s strengths and weaknesses have received some help from Joel Kotkin.

Mitt Romney, Kotkin explains, is the last of an American patrician class.

In his words: “Romney’s Mormonism may be a departure from the old Protestant aristocracy, but the former Massachusetts governor epitomizes both the traditional strengths (a sense of modesty and self-control, a pristine personal life and lack of ostentation) and the weaknesses (an inability to personally connect with those less fortunate, less able or less educated) of the patricians. Perhaps nothing illustrates those weaknesses better than the inability of the richest major party candidate in a generation to comprehend how his scandalously low personal income tax rate and his use of offshore tax havens might offend voters, particularly in an economically ravaged state like South Carolina.”

In that Romney resembles John Kerry and George Bush more than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Today’s patrician class seems woefully out of touch with the nation and its people. In many ways it is living off nostalgia for a past when its efforts helped build America.

Kotkin writes: “In the country’s first two centuries, some common ground joined the traditional conservatives who made up the bulk of the moneyed class and who spearheaded the quest for national power and economic expansion with the muscular progressivism epitomized by the two President Roosevelts. The forgers of American preeminence in the business world—Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan, the Rockefellers, Thomas J. Watson of IBM, David Packard and Bill Hewlett—embraced the ideal of growth where enriching themselves meant creating unprecedented opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Americans. These men built and financed things—from oil wells and high-tech instruments to autos and suburban tract houses—essential to the prosperity of the working and middle classes they employed and depended on to purchase their products.”

Great American patricians in the past built and managed businesses: automobiles, oil wells and computers. When all is said and done they did much more than invest in America’s future.

Perhaps it’s a distinction without a difference, but surely one of Mitt Romney’s problems is that he operated at a safe patrician distance from the businesses he invested in and turned around.

Having functioned at a distance from the concerns of the workers on the line, he is too detached and disconnected from their concerns.

But, what are the alternatives to rule by the last patrician? Kotkin does not see the emergence of a politician who can articulate the interests of the middle class or working class. He does not see a new Reagan or Clinton coming on to the political scene today.

He is seeing the Democratic party being captured by a new political class, a clerisy. In other words, by a secular clergy.

In my view Kotkin does not give enough weight to the fact that today’s Democratic party, ruled as it is by a clerisy, is still doing the bidding of labor unions.

In any event, here is the way Kotkin describes what is taking the place of a declining patrician class: “… the real winners here are not likely to be the largely suburban masses but a new, heavily urban littoral ruling class. Of course, the politically potent liberals who populate these urban areas live amidst far greater income inequality than the non-coastal, red-state “rubes.” Epitomized by Barack Obama, this ascendant force draws its strength largely from high reaches of academia, the media, the environmental lobby and, increasingly, the digital billionaires of Silicon Valley.”

He continues: “Like the old patricians, this new group shares a basic ideology. Indeed they can be seen as something of a clerisy—members of a secular congregation whose shared faith is in a society run by experts such as themselves according to the dictates of accepted science. That those experts would profit from their own advice is seen as merely part of a virtuous circle, scarcely worth the notice of the high-minded citizens scientifically calculating the common good. For the most part, the clerisy believes not so much in economic growth but in enforcing an agenda of ever-increasing urban density, racial redress, cultural experimentation and ‘green’ energy. Obama reigns largely as high priest of this class.”

What differentiates the old patricians from the new secular clergy? Kotkin explains that the old patricians showed more concerned for the well-being of their workers and customers.

In his words: “Most important, as employers, the old patricians understood the need for basic education and training for their workers. In contrast, the clerisy has little needed for the basically educated, but only an approving claque and faithful servants. Many members of the rising new elite and their well-off employees depends on non-profits or family trusts for income so that their economic interests lie primarily in asset inflation, whether in real estate or equities. No surprise then that the businesses with which they most identify are media and social media companies that outside of the odd receptionist employ largely the best educated and affluent. Significantly, these companies’ stocks provide huge increases in wealth without causing any direct harm to their holders’ delicate environmental and aesthetic sensibilities. After all, the environmental impact of a computer company can easily be shifted out of the view of the Bay Area, as for instance Apple functions as an ideas company in the United States, and a manufacturer in China.”

If the election becomes a choice between the last of the patricians and the champion of the secular clergy, Kotkin believes that the clerical class will win. For his part he seems to favor the last of the patricians.

Kotkin suggests that the middle and working classes are so thoroughly “divided by social and cultural issues with no credible champion for their economic concerns,” that power may shift to the clerics and their “media enablers.”

Strangely enough, Kotkin is making the case for anyone but Mitt. He seems to be saying that if the American people are given the choice between Romney and Obama they will vote for Obama because they will never be able to connect with the last of the patricians.

Last Saturday, of course, South Carolina Republicans voiced their opinion on the issue. They want someone who can represent the middle and working class, someone who is more like Reagan and Clinton than like Bush and Kerry.

Given the alternatives and given their belief that Romney will not fare well in a general election, they voted for Newt Gingrich. In many ways Gingrich is a flawed candidate, but he does represent the class of voters that will not be represented by either Obama or Romney. 


David Foster said...

Kotkin is using the terms "patrician" and "old money" rather loosely. Romney's money goes back no further than his father's generation, and most of it, Mitt made himself. Tom Watson Sr, founder of IBM, did not have any family money; he was a traveling salesman by trade. Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett would, I suspect, be amused to hear themselves being described as "patricians."

It is true, if almost tautological, that someone whose career is entirely in the finance industry is less-involved in the detailed operations of individual businesses and the concerns of their employees than is someone whose career has been spent building and managing such businesses. I think the Republican position in the race would have been stronger with the latter kind of executive (even if the business in question had been pizza).

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with you that Kotkin is using the term patrician rather loosely. As you know the Kennedy money is not all that old, and the notion of the Kennedys a patricians is a bit of a stretch.

I think that, in general, Kotkin is giving us a sense of what passes for patrician money in the US. He does mention Walter Wriston, former Chairman of Citibank, as an exemplary patrician banker, one whom he approves of.