Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mitt Romney: "Let's Restore America"

As I sit in my office on this early Tuesday morning I am thankful that I still have power in my house.  I am also hoping that Messiah College will once again cancel classes.  (Update: It looks like classes are canceled!). 

I am typing in my water-free (so far) basement study watching a video posted on the Mitt Romney for President website called “Restore America’s Greatness.”  I have now replayed the video three or four times and I am still having a difficult time figuring out what “America” Romney wants to “restore.”  (I should add that the video was made in January 2012, just before the Iowa caucuses, but Romney also echoed this restoration theme when he accepted the GOP nomination in Tampa).    

I am not against the idea of "restoring America," at least in principle.  But as a historian, I think the idea may be a bit problematic.

It seems that Romney wants to restore an America that “challenges us to do better" and is rooted in the “optimism that built this greatest nation on earth.”  The video implies that Barack Obama does not want to “challenge us to do better” or tap into “American optimism.”  

But let’s explore this further.  Just what is the America that Romney wants to restore?

Perhaps it is the America that we lived in immediately before the election of Barack Obama.  But if this is the America Romney wants to restore he would have to admit that George W. Bush was good for America.  Since this would be the kiss of death for his campaign, I am not sure he wants to restore us to the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Maybe he wants to restore America to the 1990s.  The economy did fairly well and technology stocks boomed. A lot of people made a lot of money.  But if he wants to restore America to the 1990s then he would have to give proper recognition, in some fashion, to Bill Clinton.  I am not sure Romney or his campaign are willing to do that, especially since Clinton is campaigning for Obama.

So it must be the 1980s.  Yes, that’s it—the era of Ronald Reagan.  This is the America that Romney (and virtually every other present-day GOP candidate for president) wants to restore. Reagan dismantled much of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” the economy boomed, and the Cold War ended. A "back to the 80s" movement (sounds like a show on VH1) would make sense for Romney.  He probably made a lot of money in the decade and he still thinks that Russia is the greatest threat to United States security.  Perhaps he wants to restore America to the age of Gordon Gekko, the lead character from the movie Wall Street who epitomized the 1980s with his famous speech claiming that “greed is good.”

But maybe I have it wrong.  Maybe Romney wants to restore an older America.  

The 1970s?  I don’t think so.  People had to wait too long to get gas for their cars. We had one president who resigned in shame and another  president who tried to chide us for our conspicuous consumption and selfishness.  

The 1960s?  I highly doubt it.  Too much dissent for such a law and order presidential candidate. The memory of the 1960s is every Republican's worst nightmare.

I think the 1950s might be a better bet.  This was the age of the white middle class, suburbia, and the kind of wholesome culture that Romney seems to represent.  But what about Michael Harrington's "The Other America?"  Or how about the fight for Civil Rights that began in this decade?  I am not sure all Americans today would want to go back to the 1950s.

So it must be the 1940s.  Romney wants to go back to a decade of war.  Or perhaps he wants to go back to the 1940s because of the "Greatest Generation," those men and women who made great sacrifices for American freedom and values.  The only problem with such a restoration project is that the "Greatest Generation" understood sacrifice, civic responsibility, and the common good, ideas that do not mesh very well with the message of individualism we heard so prominently at the GOP convention.  (See my comments below on the founding generation).

Romney, of course, does not want to go back to the 1930s.  This was the decade of the Great Depression and the big government solutions designed to bring it to an end.

Maybe Mitt Romney wants to restore America to the 1920s?  It was definitely a "roaring" time, but I am not sure that Americans would like to go back to Prohibition.  Moreover, many of the descendants of Romney's new-found followers on the Christian Right were ousted from their denominations during the so-called Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

I don't think Mitt Romney wants to restore America to the first couple decades of the twentieth century either.  This was the Progressive Era.  Too much government regulation of big business.

It seems that Mitt Romney might be right at home in the late 19th century.  When Romney said he wants to return to the kind of ambition that "built this country," he must be referring to the Robber Barons, those captains of industry who made a lot of money, helped build our infrastructure, and kept the late-19th-century equivalent of the 47% at bay.  Just ask William Jennings Bryan.

The 1860s are definitely out, unless Romney wants to "restore" America to an era of bloody Civil War.  This was also the era when Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans used the power of the federal government to force the Confederacy to come back to the Union and accept racial equality.  I am not saying that Romney does not believe in racial equality, but if he wants to restore us to the 1860s (and the early 1870s) he would have to admit that the federal government must play a role in preventing the states from doing certain things.

The early American republic is out as well.  I doubt Romney wants to "restore" America to an age in which his Mormon faith was persecuted relentlessly.  If what Romney means by "restore" is a return to morality, then I doubt he would want to return to a century of slavery.  I don't think that slavery is a very moral institution.

Does Romney want us to return to a Jeffersonian vision that celebrates the "yeoman farmer?"  That might be nice, but I don't think Romney embraces such a vision.  Why do physical labor on the land when you can make your money through markets?  Perhaps he would prefer the Federalist/Hamiltonian vision of a strong central government that limits the role of the states. 

Maybe Romney wants us to return to the era of the Founding Fathers--a "Golden Age" of religion when church attendance was right around 17% and our political leaders challenged us to be virtuous--to lay aside our personal interest for the greater good of the nation.  But this kind of civic humanism would make Romney followers uncomfortable.

What America does Romney want to restore?  I realize that my historical sketch above lacks nuance and complexity (something I consistently preach), but I think it is a useful starting point for this discussion of "restoring America."  

Calling all faithful readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I need some help here.