Romney Ceded the Language of Citizenship

Rockwell-townmeeting wide

At the top, at least, the Obama campaign was premised on a clear vision of citizenship.  As a matter of course, the President spoke words of good will toward his fellow Americans, promising that those who heard him were joining him in a great enterprise.  He gestured toward our responsibility to our neighbors and our children, the duties of business to advance the common good through both their own creation of jobs, through their concern for their employees, and their contributions to those places and institutions we are supposed to hold in trust—schools, roads, hospitals, banks, the ozone layer, to name but a few.  No one in our country would be abandoned, none left to bear the brunt of a literal or figurative hurricane all by himself.  It was a beautiful picture.  With what image of citizenship did Mitt Romney counter it?

Next to none.  Romney promised that his policies would be friendly to small businesses, and that those businesses would drive job creation and growth.  His administration would facilitate that growth, but in no way direct it; sound economics, he averred, showed his path was scientifically certain, as if government and Americans themselves simply needed to get out of the way and let the self-directed machine of the market get back to work.

He did, of course, speak of a robust American military and an assertive foreign policy, but, revealing how poorly the rhetoric of the last Bush administration has worn, he couched this platform solely in reference to the world as a “dangerous place,” and America in all its abstraction as the great hope of the earth.  He never confessed what it was that actual Americans should hope for or what America’s empery would actually bequeath.  Was it something other than the spilling of blood and guts for us, and the spread of radicalized Islamist parties across the Middle East?  I am still at a loss.

Obama has consistently spoken the language of citizenship, and it is clear that young people and, indeed, most Americans hear him.  Why should they not?  It is a beautiful line and it costs its charmed listener nothing, for Obama’s great call to citizenship amounts to precisely the following: all I need is your vote and you can leave the rest to me.

To vote for Obama was to vote for the further sexual and amatory liberation of homosexuals and young women, and one could feel proud of extending that freedom, since it does not—the voter believes—have anything to do with me (save, perhaps, to justify my own peccadillos as expressions of free love).  It was a vote for raising taxes on people one shall never meet, to ensure that welfare and healthcare programs balloon until they maintain the lives of people one intends never to see.  It was a vote for the invisible absence of work in black ghettos we shall pass by, at nearest, on the train, and for the invisible labor of illegal aliens, who do the work we—for some bizarre reason—think it is okay to proclaim we are unwilling to do.  It was a vote for the government to save the “environment” from “climate change,” so that one can buy the next scrap of technology with even less a sensation of decadence than one felt when purchasing the last.  It was a vote for a foreign policy of drone attacks and special ops: all so distant and so expert that we will not even know we are at war—indeed, the President himself will instruct us that all wars have been “wound down.”

How attractive this vision of citizenship, in which we apparently are actually better—more enlightened, more virtuous, more patriotic—Americans for simply turning everything over to Obama the manager and getting on with our private pursuits and omnidirectional yearnings.  Indeed, if none of the above warms the heart, we have at least the satisfaction of being proud that we voted for a black man.  What an affordable way to expiate white guilt for the sins of our fathers, or, as the case may be, to feel as if we have avenged our grandfathers and are the harbingers of a new age!

Conservatives—and even Republicans—could speak the language of citizenship with far more integrity than does the President.  They could legitimately propose that it is just those rich networks of institutions and relationships that arise from strong families, settled communities, and faithful churches that they wish to see flourish by getting the Leviathan state out of the way.  They could reasonably suggest that free and decentralized political institutions provide more access to more people, making it possible for most of us to live out our political natures in an authentic form of citizenship.  They can rightly propose that private property and free markets, when protected from both continuous state manipulation and the depredations of large—and ever larger—corporate monopolies, make it possible for us to be citizens of communities rather than clients of the state, and to be free actors cultivating good works, rather than mere contributors of votes and taxes to those “great national projects” directed from on high.

Indeed, conservatives do speak that language.  Prior to his nomination for Vice President, Paul Ryan sometimes did.  Even Glenn Beck—whom most liberals and conservatives alike deride for his hysterical bombast of paranoia—has held up this vision of citizenship with persuasive elegance.  Above all, Pat Buchanan has spent his career pleading for Americans to take back their republic—not from immigrants, as his purblind and suicidal critics on the left love to prate, but—from a mammoth imperial state that has long since ceased to honor the interests of American citizens, and which promises them nothing but the thin gruel of welfare and the specter of patriotism as it barters away the prosperity of a once dynamic and independent national culture.

While it is true that Obama’s campaign benefited greatly from the advice of behavioral psychologists, appealing to a sense of grievance and a fear of being left alone that, with every year, cuts more deeply into the heart of the American people, at the top, he sublimated resentment and fear into a sensation of righteousness and generosity.  Against this, Republicans rightly argued for a more restrained federal government and for the benefits of free enterprise.  But they did so in a fashion that asked Americans to make a leap of faith that deregulated corporations would take better care of them than the nanny state, and which seemed to suggest it was possible for us all to be prosperous without our actually being anything more or other than consumers in an intimidatingly vast and volatile marketplace.  They spoke of efficiency and individualism, when the test of their policies really lay in whether they would facilitate a renewal of the ties that bind one person to another, generations each to each, the soul to God; and in a clear vision of a common good, a shared sacrifice, and a society governed by citizens whose very freedom makes them more capable of assuming responsibility for one another in ways that do not involve career bureaucrats.

I suspect Romney did not speak the language of citizenship, because such words seem empty to him, and I suspect this to be the case with much of the Republican elite.  No less do I suspect that Obama spoke so effectively of the duties of citizenship because he was really only asking for an increase in power.  But what I have proposed is the language—or, better, the guiding instinct—of most Americans and of all authentic conservatism.  The hard work ahead of us is not convincing Americans they want to be good citizens.  They already do.  But we must show them that this entails something other than a tick at the ballot box.  We must make clear that the sense of righteousness citizenship offers may properly be enjoyed only if we earn it by taking on also the weight of self-government, mutual aid, and responsibility for the authentic moral life of ourselves, our families, and of our neighbors.

James Matthew Wilson

By

James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a new collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). A scholar of philosophical theology and literature, Wilson has lectured widely on topics ranging from modern American poetry to ancient Greek philosophy.

  • Briana

    AMEN! to the millionth degree!

  • Pingback: Romney Ceded the Language of Citizenship | Catholic Canada

  • robert rogers

    You forgot to mention the ruthless demonization of Romney by Obama and the relentless demagogeury.

    Robert eprocx@gmail.com

  • waffle

    Really?! Could it not just be that most contemporaries with a ‘vote’ simply gave in to deceit? Idolatry/narcissism – this mascot sounds like seems like what ‘peer’ intimates/demands is fine for ME?! the pocketbook vote is more honest than the Hollywood bottle.

  • Ann Neumann

    Perhaps the majority of Americans simply felt that their moral direction should come from within, not from their government.

    • cloonfush

      Do you not understand that this government wants to dictate everyone’s moral direction, enforced by the heavy hand of government? That means, pay a fine, go to jail or do it our way. Are we prepared to be martyrs?

    • Jeff

      “Perhaps the majority of Americans simply felt that their moral direction should come from within, not from their government.”
      Preach it, sister! Why does anyone think it makes sense for those who want “small government” to want nothing less than complete, Taliban-style government control of all our sex lives.? And why is it those who want the most control and have the most to say about the evils of same sex marriage always the guys who get caught with rent boys or trying to catch a cheap thrill in a men’s rest room?

      • cloonfush

        Ann and Jeff…the blind leading the blind. I Don’t think Obama care is going to fix this.

  • cloonfush

    As a Villanova grad, I am proud that they have a man of your insight and intelligence on the faculty. I fear that our culture is too far gone to make a come back. You are assuming that people can be convinced that there is value in “…the sense of righteousness citizenship offers…”. The only “righteousness” valued today seems to be in the belief that “I want it, I want it now and how can I get it”. Sorry to be such a downer but the election results have made me face reality. What left to do but pray?

    • Goldmund

      pray that you can give more, as Jesus tuaght in the gospel yesterday.

      • cloonfush

        I am praying for you Goldmund. Praying that your typing and/or spelling improve.

  • Adam Baum

    “He gestured toward our responsibility to our neighbors and our children,
    the duties of business to advance the common good through both their
    own creation of jobs, through their concern for their employees, and
    their contributions to those places and institutions we are supposed to
    hold in trust—schools, roads, hospitals, banks, the ozone layer, to name
    but a few. ”

    Oh Baloney. Only fools believe that. It was all about free stuff and voting for “revenge”. Contraceptives, Obamaphones, Cash-for-Clunkers, citizenship for illegals, the remaking of marriage and their business equivalents “green energy”, auto bailouts, and the enactment of legislation that provides for regulation that will pick winners and losers. “You didn’t build that was simply an other lien against private property. In short, this election was about greed and insulating people from the consequences of their choices. Coveting thy neighbor’s goods is like a lot of things, no longer a sin and in the world of the left, civic virtue.

    Sandra Fluke, a thirty year old “law student” demanding that somebody pay for her pill is the poster child for Obama’s America, perpetual adolescence and a refusal to become independent and responsible. In a couple of years, she’ll no doubt be demanding plastic surgery to maintain an illusion of youth a desirability.

    Modern politics, especially when some pay to the public treasury but others are exempted, you know-that not everybody has “skin in the game”-is going to result in a shell game of conspicuous benefits and concealed costs.

    View the video below (if you can stand a foul-mouthed, and incoherent speaker). I doubt this guy is even aware of “common good” let alone motivated by it. He is motivated by hatred:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQBfudpKo3g

    And no, he’s not unique by any means.

    Whatever policy vacillations or rhetorical inadequacies Romney had, he is by all accounts a decent guy who gives of his time, talent and treasure freely. Obama gives of our time, talent and treasury freely to his friends and the leviathan. Unfortunately politics doesn’t favor decency.

    For decades, the left has been growing dependent constituencies that vote for their private benefits at public expense. Politics increasingly, privateering wrapped in a veneer of public purpose.

    • James Kabala

      You did see this paragraph, right? It basically agrees with you:

      “To vote for Obama was to vote for the further sexual and amatory
      liberation of homosexuals and young women, and one could feel proud of
      extending that freedom, since it does not—the voter believes—have
      anything to do with me (save, perhaps, to justify my own peccadillos as
      expressions of free love). It was a vote for raising taxes on people
      one shall never meet, to ensure that welfare and healthcare programs
      balloon until they maintain the lives of people one intends never to
      see. It was a vote for the invisible absence of work in black ghettos
      we shall pass by, at nearest, on the train, and for the invisible labor
      of illegal aliens, who do the work we—for some bizarre reason—think it
      is okay to proclaim we are unwilling to do. It was a vote for the
      government to save the “environment” from “climate change,” so that one
      can buy the next scrap of technology with even less a sensation of
      decadence than one felt when purchasing the last. It was a vote for a
      foreign policy of drone attacks and special ops: all so distant and so
      expert that we will not even know we are at war—indeed, the President
      himself will instruct us that all wars have been ‘wound down.’”

  • hombre111

    Obama spoke the language learned when one is a community organizer and has a sense of the big picture and how we are all part of an immense dynamic. Romney could have spoken the same language if he had taken the lessons learned from his Mormonism to heart, with its emphasis on shared community. Surely those are his basic values. Or are they? For most of his life, he has lived in the bubble of the 1%. Somebody needs to explore the values of the 1%. Are they the values we all hold? Or they values that say “I figured out how to get mine by using power, legislation, and economic structures to siphon wealth out of the middle class.”
    This is the one thing not addressed by Republicans. In 1980, wages went flat for the middle class, even as production continued to soar. Where did the wealth from that increased production go? To the 1%. Why? Before, middle class income climbed as production climbed. And then suddenly, that ended. What were the forces that caused such a thing? How was it enabled through legislation and through readjustment of the economic structure?

    • Adam Baum

      Flat was a big improvement from the inflation of the “misery index” of the 1970′s, and the inability to get a tank of gas at any price.

      Your economic ignorance is unreal.

  • Goldmund

    You state that Obama benefits from being black in this election. He does. Blacks were enslaved in this country far longer than they have been free citizens. Is that a definition your dynamic and independent national culture? I will give you some more definitions: a pre-emtive war in Iraq of Bush that killed citizens, or the Pinkerton union busters hired by business to kill citizens, of the eradication of the native american citizens.

    People of faith were at the center of all of that change. People of faith elected Obama again in 2012. And people of faith and politics like you have always had sour grapes.

    • cloonfush

      Are you not oversimplifying things just a bit too much? Can you think of anything to support the proposition that America once had a dynamic and independent culture? If you can not you have your liberal/progressive blinders on my poor, lost friend.

      • Gold mound

        Not your friend. i do remember when everything said made in Japan. Is that the era you wax poetic for?

        • Adam Baum

          Are you happier now that it says ‘made in china’?

  • JD Salyer

    Good stuff. Keep it up, Crisis Magazine.

  • Pingback: Tuesday, November 13, 2012; Feast of St. John Chrysostom « Tipsy Teetotaler

MENU