Mitt Romney and
America's 'Medieval' Calvinist Resurgence (SueddeutscheZeitung, Germany)
eerie feeling that this country we love so much (Manhattan, Dylan, Philip Roth)
is still fundamentally foreign to us (genetically altered foods, Wall St.,
George W. Bush). Isn't Mitt Romney one of those people who gave us the most
severe economic crisis since 1929? ... Instead of solidarity and a sense of
community, a self-righteous anger is directed at the victims of the crisis - at
the losers, the penniless, the bankrupt, and the millions on
the street as a result of home foreclosures - and at the government, which has
undertaken to help them."
Christian reformer John Calvin, a leading proponent a theology that has a rather strict point of view about the relationship between humans and God, is likely at the root of today's right-wing Republican Party doctrine.
God rewards the hard-working and punishes the idlers. When
it comes down to it, those who live in poverty should blame themselves and
don't deserve help. This type of thinking has always existed in American
society. And thanks to Mitt Romney, this ideology, which seems bizarre to
Europeans, is returning with a vengeance.
If Germans could vote in the United States, it would have
been all over by now.Eighty-nine
percent of respondents in a ZDF (ZweitesDeutschesFernsehen/Second
German Television) political poll said they would vote for Obama. Only two
percent would choose Mitt Romney. And that brings us to what is so fascinating
about American presidential campaigns.
It's that eerie feeling that this country we love so much
(Manhattan, Dylan, Philip Roth) is still fundamentally foreign to us (genetically
altered foods, Wall Street, George W. Bush). Isn't Mitt Romney one of those
people who gave us the most severe economic crisis since 1929? And didn't Obama
withdraw the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, provide poor Americans with
health insurance, and hunt down Osama bin Laden?
There are good explanations for Mitt Romney's successes. Some
of them can be found in the book Pity
the Billionaire by Thomas Frank. Frank belongs to that group of
intellectuals who in The Baffler, a magazine published in
Chicago, invented a new form of critique of capitalism which deals more with
realities than theories. Thomas Frank was recently on a book tour in Germany, and
when he spoke about his country, he was confronted by rooms full of incredulous
Instead of solidarity and a sense of community, he said, there
is self-righteous anger. He described in detail how America responded to the
financial crisis - not with reform but with even more systematic deregulation, a
radical implementation of free market economics and a fierce opposition to any
social measures and programs.
This is reminiscent of medieval medical practices, which
included cauterizing wounds with hot irons. But above all, the reaction - a
natural response in the United States as elsewhere - reversed itself. Instead
of solidarity and a sense of community, a self-righteous anger is directed at
the victims of the crisis - at the losers, the penniless, the bankrupt, and the
millions on the street as a result of home
foreclosures - and at the government, which has undertaken to help them, thus
legitimizing their failure.
The engine of this bizarre Zeitgeist is a new caste from
the highest tax bracket: the "offended." It now has a surprisingly
large following among the middle class and barely wealthy - groups that really
can't afford to adopt such a hard line.
The caste's hour of birth was broadcast live on February 29,
2009 on the business news channel CNBC.
Reporter Rick Santelli stood there on the parquet
floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and worked himself into a rage. In Santelli's opinion, the government assistance program for
homeowners who could no longer pay their mortgages was "promoting bad
behavior" and "subsidizing losers' mortgages." Outraged, he
asked the assembled stockbrokers, "How many of you people want to pay for
your neighbor's mortgage who has an extra bathroom and can't pay their
bills?" In a full-blown rage, he exclaimed: "This is America!"
Leon Cooperman, founder of a New Jersey hedge fund and
champion of the caste of the "offended" behaved in a similarly angry
manner. In November, he authored a letter
to Obama that quickly made the rounds. He gave a detailed description of
his childhood as the son of a Bronx plumber, of his long journey in the
financial industry which he began as an indebted college graduate and is now
ending with him as a multi-billionaire. According to Cooperman, the damage
Obama is causing with his rhetoric and programs is no less than an incitement
to "class warfare."
The holy book of the "offended" is Ayn Rand's now oft-quoted novel The Strike[DerStreik], which
in its original form is much more aptly entitled Atlas Shrugged.
Atlas, the god who shouldered the weight of the world, represents all of those
who consider Mitt Romney and the "offended" to be society's
"givers." Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent "takers" are
the burden that must be case off by this "shrug."
In Europe, this often teary-eyed depiction of the fundamentalist
ideology of meritocracy is hard to swallow, because it contradicts our definition
of society and the state. This is a society with a solidarity that for Germany
and other European countries, is sacred, and entails a compromise acceptance of
mediocrities, high taxes, and relatively generous social security.
But in America, at this point, the immense wealth and
prosperity have been created almost entirely through individual effort. Never in
the history of mankind was it possible to create such wealth as during the
years 1997 to 2008. In most cases, this wealth was by no means created through traditional means of exploitation. Financial skill, innovation and risk-taking industries were
the driving forces. Therefore, wealth is not seen as a privilege, but as a
reward for hard work. Why should one share such reward with the hoards of losers
who didn't take the trouble to amount to anything?
It is here that the faith that stood at the very beginning
of American history asserts itself in the form of Calvinism, which was driven out
of Europe to the New World.Calvinism (in
broad terms) assumes that man is born a sinner, but that God rewards those who
work hard and punishes the idle. So poverty is self-inflicted. This credo has
always smoldered in American society. Only a Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to partly
tame this original notion of a free market economy with the "New Deal," his new social
contract after the Great Depression.
But now Calvinism is back with a vengeance. Mitt Romney may
be a Mormon, but he and his biography stand precisely for this principle which
is part and parcel of the roots of the nation. Even if it's no longer God who
decides who is at fault: "Let the failures fail." Such ideas are extremely
foreign to Europeans. Unless of course, it is about bailing out Greece and