Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Romney Economics and Politics for the dumb

I find it discouraging to see the degree to which democratic politics often does not focus on real issues. As an anthropologist, I understand that symbolism is at the heart of politics, and have no trouble with that. But when symbolism distracts people from their interests, or causes polarization rather than consensus, or confuses the issues, then democracy does not seem to be well served (or democracy does not seem to work that well).

I recently read an article (which I can no longer find) describing the Elizabeth Warren's campaigning in small venues in Massachusetts. The point of the article was that the "undecided voter" would make up his or her mind based on how likable she appeared at such events. To the extent that this "likeability" has to do with how much they feel she understands them and their problems, it is a good fit. But it was clear from the article that she is considered a good candidate because of her social skills in dealing with voters, skills that are probably only partially useful for getting things done in the senate. I've always wondered about the intelligence of "undecided voters" in recent contests: the lines are so clearly drawn between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, red and blue, that one wonders if the "undecided" voter has really been paying attention. To reach them, politicians cannot just hold press conferences and issue position papers. They need to recruit them emotionally, not through rational thought.

Today I see that the Obama campaign has created a website called Romney Economics that seeks to tell the story of Romney's private sector record.  This is a clever idea, because Romney portrays himself as "experienced" and "skilled" in business, and people need to understand what kind of business he ran and how he hollowed out companies, and often made huge profits at the expense of workers and taxpayers who were left holding the bag when the excessively leveraged companies went bankrupt. So far so good.

The problem is that when one reads the examples, it is impossible to understand why what Romney did was even legal.  The three cases describe plundering so egregious that they seem impossible or very biased. The website really needs a 4th example, one where Bain Capital (Romney's firm) and the company it bought and the workers all benefited, so that we can understand how the system should work in theory, helping the reader better understand the three cases of failure. In fact, only if you understand how venture capital is supposed to work can you really understand how Bain Capital's record is one of greed and excess, even if it is legal.  I wonder if the website, and the stories, will really stick if people do not understand how the system is supposed to work. Can people see how Bain (and Romney) used the rules to their private advantage? The website merely demonizes Romney, but will those "undecided voters" be swayed, or will they dismiss this as partisan posturing?  On the other hand, if they are still "undecided" in this election which offers such clear choices, do they have the time and interest to really understand how venture capital is supposed to work?

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