If Mitt Romney becomes the Republican nominee and faces off against Barack Obama in November, we may finally be able to answer a question that has vexed students of American politics since the heyday of George Wallace: Which elite do white, blue-collar Americans hate more?
Despite Newt Gingrich’s apparent surge in South Carolina, Romney remains the odds-on favorite for the Republican nod. And a Romney-Obama contest would pit the very personification of the two elites that generations of Americans have been brought up to loathe: the paper-shuffling, unfeeling banker, utterly out of touch with most Americans’ concerns, and who comes from inherited wealth to boot; and the cool, academic social engineer who is culturally estranged from the white working class and isn’t opposed to governments helping racial minorities.
Romney is the model of everything in modern American capitalism that makes people pine for the kinder, gentler capitalism that his father personified. As the head of American Motors, George Romney, Mitt’s pop, made cars. Mitt makes deals. As Michael Tomasky noted this week, George Romney refused a bonus of $100,000 after American Motors had a good year in 1960, saying that no top executive needed to make more than his $225,000 annual salary ($1.4 million today). Romney the lesser has a fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions for his work in private equity, extracting vast amounts of money from the firms — successful and not — that Bain Capital took over. The younger gets all manner of tax breaks that his father never could, apparently availing himself of the special rate for private equity and hedge fund managers that, he admits, has brought his rate down to around 15 percent.
Worse yet, Romney comes off as a walking, talking compendium of upper-class cluelessness. His offer of a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, his dismissal of his yearly speaker fees (around $370,000) as pocket money, his equation of corporations and people — these and other off-the-gold-cufflink comments depict a guy whose points of intersection with the lives of most Americans are few and far between. A rich kid who became a bean counter: Could anything be worse?
In the demonology of the American right, however, there surely is something worse: a liberal, cultural elitist who sees — from the ivory tower — the mission of government as catering to (lazy) minorities. If Romney represents the target of classic left populism, dating to the farmer-worker upsurge against Gilded Age capitalists, Barack Obama seems sent by central casting to embody the target of neo-classic, racist right populism. Think of George Wallace’s attacks on not only minorities but also on their enablers — “pointy-head bureaucrats,” professors and elitist journalists (“Huntley and Chinkley and Walter Contrite,” Wallace said in a burst of almost surreal demagogy) who had no understanding of or sympathy for the white working class. To those who think Wallace’s attacks are passe, may I call to your attention Gingrich’s put-down of moderator Juan Williams in this week’s Fox News debate?
In his own way, Obama has as little of the common touch as Romney. In the faux populism of the right, his lack of affinity for certain blue-collar pleasures (He can’t bowl! He doesn’t hunt!), his concern for climate change and other supposed abstractions, are all depicted as signs of contempt for blue-collar lives. Add Rick Santorum’s attack on Obama’s remark that it would be a good thing if every American went to college — a comment, Santorum said, that reeked of hubris and elitism by denigrating workers — to Gingrich’s labeling of Obama as the food-stamp president, and it’s abundantly apparent how the right will go after Obama this fall.
The white working class may be a shrinking segment of the American electorate, but it’s still massive. Over time, as this group has become deunionized and downwardly mobile, and as GOP standard-bearers have learned to channel Wallace’s appeal in less explicit ways, these voters have moved steadily into the Republican column. But with Romney as Obama’s opponent, the surge of blue-collar whites into Republican ranks may be smaller this year than GOP strategists have anticipated. Indeed, an Obama-Romney contest opens the door wide for a third-party challenger on the populist right. That’s not a Ron Paul (too culturally libertarian), and surely not the kind of candidate whom the culturally liberal, fiscally conservative third-party advocates of Americans Elect seek, but someone in the mold of a Gingrich or Santorum who is willing to leave the Republican fold. America doesn’t need a neo-Wallace, but this would be a supremely tempting year for one to come forth.