Thursday, February 2, 2012

Romney, Conservatism, and the poor

So I discussed earlier this morning about the fact that Mitt Romney not being concerned about poor people should not be shocking to liberals-- tactically speaking.  But, I also think the most important aspect of this recent flub is that it highlights a key misunderstanding liberals have about conservative philosophy.


I think the response over the past day to Romney's statement from Democrats and liberals; not to mention the nonplussed response from conservatives to their liberal friend’s reaction speaks very clearly to one aspect of conservatism that liberals do not understand--conservatism speaks to and for people who have lost something.  


Oh course Romney doesn't care about the truly poor, they haven't lost anything; they never had anything to begin with!  


I'm stealing this point straight out of Cory Robin's excellent new book The Reactionary Mind so I’ll let Cory jump right in to explain:


The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.  His constituency is the contingently disposed--William Graham Sumner's "forgotten man"--rather than the preternaturally oppressed.  Far from diminishing his appeal, this brand of victim-hood endows the conservative complaint with a more universal significance.  It connects his disinheritance to an experience we all share--namely, loss--and threads the strings of that experience into an ideology promising that that loss, or at least some portion of it, can be made whole.


People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something.  It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner.  The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing.  It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small.  Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess.  It used to be one of the great virtues of the left that it alone understood the often zero-sum nature of politics, where the gains of one class necessarily entail the losses of another.  But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the left, it has fallen to the right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they--and only they--who speak for them.


Uber-rich Mitt--"I didn't lift a finger to make 99.999% of this wealth"--Romney is not going to win a lot of acting awards as he tries, as hard as he can, to identify with the hoi polloi.  But poor acting or not, conservatives aren't concerned about Romney's nonchalance about poverty--its not going to pick at their heart strings and we shouldn't be surprised as to why not.

Hopefully Democrats can use Romney’s reel of “campaign flubs from the 1%” to elect us a pro-choice, center-right, business friendly Eisenhower Republican (if only because it will provide Occupy and the (actual) left another 4 years to point out to progressives and liberals how short sighted the progressives compromise with the Goldman Sachs wing of the Democratic Party truly has been over the past 30 years).


But personally,  I also hope we can learn to better appreciate conservative philosophy, what makes it tick, why it appeals to voters, and why no one should be shocked that a Republican candidate for President doesn't care about poor people. 


I think it would do the political discourse of this nation a world of good if that happened.

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