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.


The Gospel Playboy said...

Perhaps we should check out Colbert's answer - it must be in his book "America Again: Re-Becoming The Greatness We Never Weren't" somewhere.

Sorry - couldn't resist.

Charlie McCrary said...

This is an interesting post; it makes me wonder how public discourse would change if people knew their history better.

I don't think Romney has anything very specific in mind--or, more importantly, that he wants in his audience's minds. I noticed at least once that he said "restore the principles that made America great." Those principles--probably something about upward mobility and/or capitalism--are vague. I think he's intentionally leaving it to the listener to fill in the blank however he/she wants. Nostalgia works best when it's not specific.

Joshua Wooden said...

I understand your desire to remain detached, objective and even-handed, but coming this close to an election, I have to ask: is this friendly criticism or reflective of your political affiliations?

John Fea said...


Just a historical observation. As a historian, I get concerned whenever someone talks about "restoring America" without being specific.

Gabriel said...

I think you've got a good point here, though I think President Obama does a similar thing when he refers to some sort of American essentialist character that never gives up. In both cases, the candidates are tapping into a mythical self-image that most Americans (including myself) can get excited about. On closer inspection, though, it's hard to know exactly what they mean.

Joshua Wooden said...

I think that's fair, and I wasn't being presumptuous - I was just curious.

James LaGrand said...

This isn't rocket science. If you look at this 2-minute political ad in the context of the campaign as a whole, it’s clear Romney believes that the economy during most of the 1980s and 1990s was healthier than our times--when we see rising poverty rates and the shrinking of the black middle class. It has nothing to do with the age of Reagan or greed or the robber barons or anyone else. Romney simply views the political economy of the 1980s and 1990s (Remember "the era of big government is over"?) as more likely to produce shared economic growth than a command-style economy in which the state directs it and picks winners and losers. Clinton is campaigning for Obama, but this certainly doesn’t mean they’re political or economic clones. Partly because of some private sector experience and his time as governor, Clinton understands economics far better than Obama. Yes--looking back in politics is prone to nostalgia and the air-brushing of some details. But is it any more silly or dishonest than a vague faith in the future--despite pesky contemporary data--as we're urged to move "forward"?

John Fea said...

Jim: Glad to see that my attempt at "rocket science" has lured you into the discussion here. Thanks for posting.

These are great points. Let me take your last point first. I think "forward" is just as silly as "restore America." It reeks of a Tom Paine kind of progressivism that wants to "begin anew" without any sense of those things in the past that were indeed good.

I also agree that Clinton and Obama are two different animals on the economy, but I still think that Romney would never claim that we should go back to the Clinton era because it would be a bad political move for him. (I must admit that I am a bit surprised at how many conservatives are putting a positive spin on Clinton these days).

As far as the "rocket science" goes, I think that if Romney wants to take us back to the 1980s and 1990s economy he should just say so, instead of using this "restore America" language. It seems to me that this "restore America" theme plays to the most ahistorical followers of Romney, particularly those on the Christian Right who see this as code for somehow restoring a Christian nation or returning to an age that they believe was more moral than today's world. I realize that Romney may be using "restore" in an economic sense here, but I am not sure some of his supporters pick up the nuance.

Maybe we should be like the Messiah College philosophy department and have a "come here your profs talk politics" night.

James LaGrand said...


You might be right about ahistorical Christian right folks driving Romney’s message, but I doubt it myself. Like him or not, for better or worse, Romney is a businessman. That’s how he’s consistently presented himself throughout the campaign. Think of how little he’s talked about social issues compared with economic issues. His 2-minute campaign video is simply more of this. I don’t think the history he has in mind has anything to do with morality per se. Rather, he’s likely thinking about the findings by the Fraser Institute that the U.S. in 2010 ranked 18th in the world in economic freedom, down ten places since 2005. Some people, including Romney, think more individual economic freedom and less government regulation will strengthen and grow the economy. Other reasonable people, including Obama, obviously disagree. That’s my take on this.

I do like the philosophy dept’s straight-forward approach to discussing politics, rather than talking about talking or talking about perceptions. I’d sign up for this.

John Fea said...

What does this say about our lives that our offices are just down the hall from one another and we are having this conversation in the comments section of a blog!

Fair enough. Your comments have forced me to refine my ramblings a bit. I think you are right about the economic stuff, but I think the moral stuff is still important. Focus on the Family just sent out a brochure in Iowa trying to get Iowans to vote for Romney on the moral issues. It invoked the whole Christian America debate again.


I think we can both agree on the fact that we should use word "restore" cautiously and specifically. (I am still not convinced Romney has done this). Or at least I *hope* we can agree on that.

Thanks for the conversation, Jim.

csccat said...

Just getting to this very thoughtful post. Thanks. I always wonder when I hear slogans like "restore America" what the candidate really means. My favorite, however, is "Take America Back." From what? or from whom?