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The Last Patrician: Romney Falls From Favor as America Loses Faith in Old Money

Joel Kotkin
Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University

Crossposted New Geography

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.

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.

This piece originally appeared at TheDailyBeast..

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