Richter Scale

Mitt Romney: Occupy Wall Street’s New Poster Boy?

Could Mitt Romney provide an unlikely focal point for the long-suppressed U.S. debate about economic and social equity?

Credit: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Mr. Romney's candidacy makes income distribution an impossible issue to ignore.
  • For all the presumed ostentatiousness relating to money, it has long been considered inappropriate to discuss issues of income fairness inside the United States.
  • Conservative Republican candidates had no qualms about breaking one of the Party's holiest commandments: Thou shalt not blame the rich for being rich.

From a global perspective, U.S. politics has always been remarkable in the genteel way in which pivotal — and potentially divisive — issues such as income distribution have been discussed. Or, rather, not discussed.

In part, this is the consequence of the rather baroque debate traditions in the U.S. Congress. Contrary to the rough-and-tumble image many non-Americans have of the American manner of political debate, members of Congress to this very day address each other only as “gentleman” and “gentlelady.” Elsewhere, such decorum is viewed, at best, as reflective of early 19th century traditions.

Similarly, for all the presumed ostentatiousness in terms of all matters pertaining to money, it has long been considered inappropriate to discuss issues of income fairness inside the United States.

All of that is now about to change. The Republican primaries have opened the floodgates of this — long overdue — debate. Until very recently, when the issue was raised at all, it was usually a matter of the Democratic Party’s strategy to infuse the public debate with considerations of material envy. U.S. journalists tended to shy away from raising issues, no matter how pressing or legitimate in the broader scope of things, that could cast them as pursuing a “partisan” agenda.

But now that the challengers of Mitt Romney for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination have attacked the sources of his wealth in a no-holds-barred fashion, all the old reservations will likely be thrown out of the window. Now that the Republicans themselves have raised the issue — without any restraints and, at times, even viciously — income inequality is no longer just a Democratic issue.

Income distribution and social equity issues have finally become a matter of public interest. Journalists will no longer be able to engage in their customary noblesse oblige and avoid a discussion of the issue. If our own observations are on target, quite the opposite may be the case. Having failed for so long at putting the income issue squarely into public focus, journalists are likely to give the issue much more attention during the upcoming general campaign debates, if not sooner.

This change in journalist attitudes toward income disparity is also a reflection of the concerns of the reading public, which no longer feels as if the tide of American history is necessarily working in its favor. In other words, if newspapers don’t want to continue losing readership as dramatically as they have in recent years, they must make a concerted effort to tackle an issue that, along with unemployment, is foremost on the minds of their remaining readers.

Better still, more and more younger reporters (as well as those more experienced ones who have decided to stick with the industry) seem determined to make their journalistic work count for something. As a consequence, it seems as if they are less willing to sugarcoat the issues, as was often the case in the past. “Telling it like it is” is now in.

Mitt Romney’s likely elevation to Republican presidential nominee helps all those in the United States, old and young, who have long been concerned about the deteriorating trends of economic and social equity. Rather than making the issue an abstract one, his candidacy provides a living, breathing, three-dimensional manifestation of it. In short, Mr. Romney’s candidacy makes income distribution an impossible issue to ignore.

President Obama — by no means a poor man himself, given his ample publishing royalties — must relish the thought. That is all the more so as the incumbent benefits from the fact that he (and his surrogates in the campaign) won’t need to present arguments of their own that could be deemed partisan. They’ll just need to quote Mr. Romney’s intra-party competition during the primary campaign.

This breakthrough by itself makes 2012 an extraordinary year in American politics. Given the high level of economic uncertainty and growing income disparities, the wealth and taxation issue will become a matter of broad — and potentially virulent — debate.

All the indications are that the genie is truly out of the bottle. Current attempts to bottle it back up — by trying to narrow the debate on technical items such as “carried interest” or the private equity industry as such — will likely fail.

Finally, Mr. Romney must rue the day the issue broke. For in an indirect but very potent way, it put his religion under scrutiny again. There is already a legion of campaign interviewers mentally preparing questions such as “How do you square your own extreme wealth with the Mormons’ emphasis on being socially responsible?”

This is a tricky issue for Mr. Romney to handle. If the Republican primaries, and the harshness of his opponents’ attacks on his material status, have demonstrated one thing, it is conservatives’ doubts about embracing a Mormon candidate. They have found a new valve by attacking his wealth — not his religion.

The virulence with which those attacks have been made from inside the Republican Party underscores the continuing nervousness, if not frustration, among conservatives over picking a Mormon as their standard-bearer. That frustration is so pronounced that conservative Republican candidates had no qualms about breaking one of the Party’s holiest commandments: Thou shalt not blame the rich for being rich.

The United States certainly lives in interesting times.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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