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Noam Scheiber on George Romney, Mitt Romney, and the Politics of Envy

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic has an astute take of Mitt Romney’s references to “the politics of envy,” a phrase that has angered many on the left:

The elder Romney spent his early childhood in Mexico, where the Romney clan had fled a generation earlier to escape U.S. anti-polygamy laws. By the early twentieth century, the Romneys had begun to prosper. George’s father, Gaskell—who only had one wife—was an affluent carpenter with a thriving home-building business.

But, in 1911, Mexico’s Mormon community found itself in the cross fire of a civil war. The Mormons proclaimed their neutrality; the rebels proclaimed their indifference. They first confiscated the Mormons’ horses—including George’s beloved pony, Monte—then came for their weapons. Before long, thousands of Mormons had fled back into the United States.

The episode made a lasting impression on Romney senior. He later described his family and the other refugees as “the first displaced persons of the twentieth century.” Even more interesting was the way it shaped his views on class warfare in its most literal incarnation. “I was kicked out of Mexico when I was five years old, because the Mexicans were envious of the fact that my people, who, when they went down there, were just as poor as the Mexicans, … became prosperous,” he said in a speech in 1961. “The Mexicans thought, if they could just take it away from the Mormon settlers, it would be paradise. It just didn’t work that way, of course.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, George Romney had a habit of seeing contemporary questions through the prism of his expulsion from Mexico. “One of the real problems we face is to help other nations of the world to achieve what we have achieved before their envy turns them against us to a point where they help destroy us,” he said in the same speech. In a report he delivered to the people of Michigan after the weeklong Detroit riot in 1967, Romney identified one of the causes as the “great concentrations of unskilled and uneducated people living in unbelievable poverty and indignity, surrounded by the world’s first generally affluent society.”

Given Mitt’s close relationship with his father—according to The Boston Globe’s Scott Helman and Michael Kranish, his only real act of youthful rebellion was to fly home from college on weekends to see his future wife, Ann—it’s inconceivable that he wouldn’t have assimilated these lessons. In fact, persecution by jealous outsiders wasn’t just central to the Romney family narrative, it was a key feature of Mormon sociology. “I am a member of a religion that is among the most persecuted minority groups in our history,” George Romney once said. For several generations beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the story of both the Romneys and Mormonism writ large was a cycle of poverty, followed by hard work and affluence, and then poverty again, as the Mormons fled their tormentors. [Emphasis added]

In a similar vein, many of Britain’s African Asians, i.e., descendants of Indian merchants, entrepreneurs, and workers who settled in Kenya and Uganda before intense political pressure led them to emigrate, have gravitated towards the political right. The same is true of members of many other “market-dominant minorities,” to use Amy Chua’s phrase. (This is one device we can use to understand the political character of recent immigrant groups: were members of this group subject to dispossession at the hands of an arbitrary government in their native country? Or were members of this group part of the politically dominant majority? Migrants have long been disproportionately drawn from market-dominant minorities, for obvious reasons, but cultural similarity and geographical proximity play a cross-cutting role.)  

As Arpit Gupta has observed, elites in multi-ethnic societies tend to be drawn from groups that were in some sense historically “pre-adapted to modernity.” In India, for example, members of castes that placed a heavy emphasis on commerce or on cultivating intellectual achievement, like the historically poor but socially prestigious priestly caste, have found themselves massively overrepresented in the elite strata of society. Or consider Jamie Doward’s summary of Gregory Clark’s recent findings regarding social mobility in Britain:

Drawing on data culled from official records that go back as far as the Domesday Book as well as university admissions and probate archives, Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, has tracked what became of people whose surnames indicated their ancestors had come from either the aristocratic or artisanal classes.

By studying the probate records of those with “rich” and “poor” surnames every decade since the 1850s, he found that the extreme differences in accumulated wealth narrowed over time.

But the value of the estates left by those belonging to the “rich” surname group, immortalised in the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy, the estate-owning hero in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, were above the national average by at least 10%, a statistically significant figure.

In addition, today the holders of “rich” surnames live three years longer than average, life expectancy being a strong indicator of socio-economic status.

The findings, described by Clark as sending a “clear, powerful, shock to our casual intuitions”, undermine the commonly held belief that important societal developments such as the creation of the welfare state helped to level modern society’s playing field. “The huge social resources spent on publicly provided education and health have seemingly created no gains in the rate of social mobility,” he said.

Suffice it to say, not everyone will embrace Clark’s thesis. Were we to do so, however, we might draw a few conclusions, among them that the chief benefit of the welfare state is that it prevents individuals from becoming destitute, not that it leads its beneficiaries to start cultivating the virtues that tend to facilitate the accumulation of human capital and wealth. This framework suggests that it is absolute well-being and absolute upward mobility that should concern us, not relative well-being or relative upward mobility. The cultivation of virtue is, if we take this view seriously, primarily the responsibility of kinship groups or civil society, not the state; we assume that the diffusion of cultural practices that tend to be associated with wealth accumulation will happen somewhat slowly, and that it can’t be directed through a top-down process. 

Let’s return to Noam’s piece:

Of course, as an explanation for the frustrations of the down-and-out, “envy” is more than a little condescending. Even if there are times when class envy really does drive human behavior—perhaps revolutionary Mexico was one—it’s far more plausible that the poor and disenfranchised simply want opportunity and economic security for themselves, not less of these things for others. Still, the elder Romney’s response to this slightly stunted analysis was admirably progressive. It was one of the reasons he favored foreign aid, an end to discrimination, and subsidized preschool and summer school. He was the model of a ’60s-era, liberal Republican.

Yet as Noam has observed in the past (not, alas, in a piece I can locate via TNR’s website), populist appeals that center on combating inequality have tended to appeal to upper-middle-class voters rather than lower-middle-class or working class voters, at least in intra-Democratic politics over the last decade. The political tendency Romney is criticizing is not a “politics of envy” driven by “the frustrations of the down-and-out.” Rather, he is, I suspect, criticizing a “politics of envy” driven by relatively privileged people who tend to be more concerned about the competition for positional goods in dense metropolitan areas than about chronic unemployment and underemployment in marginalized communities. 

I have one small objection to Noam’s piece:

George Romney was in many ways a progressive Republican, having bravely embraced the causes of civil rights, labor unions, and public education even as his party was turning away from them. But he was nonetheless a Republican—a deep believer in self-help, private initiative, and small government. And for him, the politics of envy were deeply personal.

George Romney may well have been a believer in small government, but he doubled state spending levels in Michigan during his gubernatorial tenure and he fought for and secured Michigan’s state income tax, a cause that is not traditionally associated with deep believers in small government. He also championed the unionization of public school teachers in Michigan, a stance that wasn’t exactly brave given the state’s political configuration at the time. His strong support for civil rights was, however, very impressive, and could reasonably be characterized as brave. 


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