Mitt Romney’s collapse in South Carolina reflects the larger, long-term decline of the American patrician class he represents. That decline was accelerated by the 2008 financial meltdown that resulted in both the wave of populist anger now being channeled by Romney’s Republican competitors, and the rise of the new post-industrial elite championed by President Obama.
Defined by inherited wealth, property and (like the original Roman patricians) a certain sense of propriety, Romney’s once dominant class has become increasingly marginalized as the bond between its interests and those of the rest of the nation has been effaced.
The son of top corporate executive and former Michigan Governor George Romney, Mitt holds joint degrees from Harvard’s law and business schools and enjoyed a lucrative career in private equity—a pedigree that may prove a bigger liability in the increasingly working-class Republican Party than his supposed social moderation. Both Newt Gingrich, who bested Romney in South Carolina, and Rick Santorum, who edged Romney in Iowa, successfully stressed their middle-class roots in a way impossible for him to imitate.
Romney’s Mormonism may be a departure from the old Protestant aristocracy, but the former Massachusetts governor epitomizes both the traditional strengths (a sense of modesty and self-control, a pristine personal life and lack of ostentation) and the weaknesses (an inability to personally connect with those less fortunate, less able or less educated) of the patricians. Perhaps nothing illustrates those weaknesses better than the inability of the richest major party candidate in a generation to comprehend how his scandalously low personal income tax rate and his use of offshore tax havens might offend voters, particularly in an economically ravaged state like South Carolina.
In a general election, against a far more disciplined foe than his party rivals, Romney’s patrician values could pose a mortal danger to the Republican cause—although perhaps not as lethal as the weaknesses of his rather pathetic GOP opponents. But in the primary Gingrich, Santorum and even Ron Paul have the advantage of those with little to lose. They can demagogue the national media class as “elitist” in ways that would not come naturally to the refined Mitt, or play well in the general election.
The decline of the patricians has been occurring slowly for decades as the interests of the wealthiest have diverged from those of ordinary Americans. In the country’s first two centuries, some common ground joined the traditional conservatives who made up the bulk of the moneyed class and who spearheaded the quest for national power and economic expansion with the muscular progressivism epitomized by the two President Roosevelts. The forgers of American preeminence in the business world—Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan, the Rockefellers, Thomas J. Watson of IBM, David Packard and Bill Hewlett—embraced the ideal of growth where enriching themselves meant creating unprecedented opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Americans. These men built and financed things—from oil wells and high-tech instruments to autos and suburban tract houses—essential to the prosperity of the working and middle classes they employed and depended on to purchase their products.
In a general election, against a far more disciplined foe than his party rivals, Romney’s patrician values could pose a mortal danger to the Republican cause.
But the last successful product of this class, John Kennedy, was elected more than a half century ago, to lead a nation that was ascendant, confident and economically vibrant. In the ensuing decades patrician politicians, particularly George W. Bush and his 2004 opponent, John Kerry, lacked the self-confidence and charisma to transcend their class. In contrast, the two most popular and accomplished politicians of recent decades, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were self-made men from the working class with a great facility for establishing a clear connection with a vast portion of the electorate.
This patrician decline occurred at the state and local level as well. In New York, the old WASP establishment epitomized by Citibank’s Walter Wriston was deeply engaged in the fate of the region. Wriston once explained to me that before the 1980s banks had depended heavily on the New York public primary schools and especially the City University for employees; but as finance unmoored from the rest of the economy in its “go-go” period of derivatives and other abstract financial instruments it found itself less anchored to the rest of Gotham’s economy. In the new financial world, employers had little need for competent “ordinary” public school graduates as employees but rather courted “rocket scientists” with primarily Ivy League, Stanford or MIT pedigrees.
A similar pattern can be seen in California. The founders of the Golden State’s great aerospace, semiconductor and computer firms, the great suburban developers and even Hollywood moguls employed tens of thousands of skilled workers. Now few new facilities are built in the state, and few well-paying jobs outside of government exist for those without an elite education. When tech firms create middle-income jobs, they are increasingly located abroad or in other, cheaper states. The winners of each tech “boom” tend for the most part to be graduates of elite schools like Stanford rather than places like San Jose State. The idea that captains of industry and common citizens were in a significant sense “in the same boat” has disappeared—one of the common complaints that seemed to bridge the Tea Party and the erstwhile Wall Street occupiers.
Given how little the patrician class now provides to the rest of the country, it’s not surprising that public esteem for them has plummeted, particularly in the ongoing aftermath of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. According to a recent Gallup survey, less than one in four Americans express any confidence in the primary institutions traditionally dominated by the patrician class—big business and the Wall Street banks. In contrast, roughly half or more expressed confidence in small business, the police and the military, areas where the patrician class is rarely present these days.
Seen in that light, it’s no surprise then that Republican voters preferred a Pennsylvania working-class warrior like Rick Santorum in Iowa and even as unlikely a self-identified champion of the middle class as Gingrich in South Carolina over the refined resume of a private equity executive.
The demise of the patrician class could be more palatable if it signaled the restoration of middle- or working-class political power in America. But the real winners here are not likely to be the largely suburban masses but a new, heavily urban littoral ruling class. Of course, the politically potent liberals who populate these urban areas live amidst far greater income inequality than the non-coastal, red-state “rubes.” Epitomized by Barack Obama, this ascendant force draws its strength largely from high reaches of academia, the media, the environmental lobby and, increasingly, the digital billionaires of Silicon Valley.
Like the old patricians, this new group shares a basic ideology. Indeed they can be seen as something of a clerisy—members of a secular congregation whose shared faith is in a society run by experts such as themselves according to the dictates of accepted science. That those experts would profit from their own advice is seen as merely part of a virtuous circle, scarcely worth the notice of the high-minded citizens scientifically calculating the common good. For the most part, the clerisy believes not so much in economic growth but in enforcing an agenda of ever-increasing urban density, racial redress, cultural experimentation and “green” energy. Obama reigns largely as high priest of this class.
The clerisy’s geographic base includes much of what was, a century ago, largely patrician-dominated turf: upper-income urban neighborhoods, high-end suburbs, and university communities. The difference now is that these areas have all expanded rapidly, due in large part to the growth of science-based industry and, perhaps more important, the money passed from patricians to their offspring. This money also funds many in the burgeoning nonprofit sector which employs many in the clerisy and often promotes their agenda.
Not surprisingly, all five of the largest donors to the Obama campaign—Microsoft, Comcast, the University of California, Harvard University and Google—represent the clerisy’s bases in academe and the information sector. Not a manufacturing, construction or traditional energy company made the top of the list.
The rise of this post-industrial ruling class may be the most tragic result of patrician decline. As bad or even evil as old patricians like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and John Rockefeller could be, they were also generally nationalists who believed in economic growth and progress. Carnegie endowed not only concert halls and art galleries but libraries and institutes to help better middle- and working-class Americans even in small towns and rural hamlets. Teddy Roosevelt, a different sort of patrician, cleaned up New York’s police department, volunteered for the army and modernized the navy.
Most important, as employers, the old patricians understood the need for basic education and training for their workers. In contrast, the clerisy has little needed for the basically educated, but only an approving claque and faithful servants. Many members of the rising new elite and their well-off employees depends on non-profits or family trusts for income so that their economic interests lie primarily in asset inflation, whether in real estate or equities. No surprise then that the businesses with which they most identify are media and social media companies that outside of the odd receptionist employ largely the best educated and affluent. Significantly, these companies’ stocks provide huge increases in wealth without causing any direct harm to their holders’ delicate environmental and aesthetic sensibilities. After all, the environmental impact of a computer company can easily be shifted out of the view of the Bay Area, as for instance Apple functions as an ideas company in the United States, and a manufacturer in China.
In contrast, the clerisy generally feels indifferent or even contemptuous toward the basic industries—home building, fossil fuel energy, basic manufacturing—that still provide the best route to increased wealth and opportunity for the middle and working classes. The rejection of the XL Keystone project by Obama last week represents just the most obvious expression of this agenda. In a second term, we may see this approach amplified as the EPA and other government agencies seek to regulate any tangibly based economic growth.
In this sense, then, the decline of the patrician class—like their antecedents in the late Roman Republic—represents something of a tragedy for the rest of us. With the middle and working classes divided by social and cultural issues and with no credible champion for their economic concerns, power may simply shift to the clerisy, supported by their media enablers. As the Who once famously put it: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
No matter how much we might dislike Mitt Romney and his aristocratic ilk, we may someday look back at him and his class with something approaching nostalgia.