Mitt Romney, an abject lesson in the follies of privilege

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Mitt Romney is running for President again. Though technically unannounced, the news effectively became public last on the 16th of this month, when Romney just happened to let it slip that he was “seriously considering” another campaign, having said previously that he would make a decision within “weeks, not months.” When a US politician purports to be “considering” a run, it usually means they’ve already started buying up White House-width curtain rails.

The first thing to say is that the man is clearly labouring under a heavy misconception. Romney is faced with a country that is trending demographically towards his opponents, an economy that it is recovering solidly under Democrat stewardship, and an electorate that has already rejected him twice (he also ran in 2008, when he failed to even secure the Republican nomination) – only a spectacular degree of misunderstanding can possibly have convinced him that this is his moment. But maybe the more interesting question is that of why this misconception persists – why is it that Mitt Romney feels entitled, or even destined, to one day be President?

People from certain backgrounds have the luxury of believing that, with hard work and talent, the reward always comes. People from other backgrounds do not. Mitt Romney’s own life – wealthy white son of a business tycoon, heir to a political dynasty and so on – might almost have been designed to systematically inoculate him against the notion that, sometimes, for all your persistence, it just isn’t your day. Perhaps the former private equity man is still learning, as he attempts to cheat the vast, structural trends that have ruled against him. This is the sort of glum little lesson that most people learn by the end of childhood.

Whatever the root of Romney’s personal bewilderment, his never-ending campaign for the White House is an interesting study in privilege, ambition and the pursuit of office. For me, the biggest take-away is that someone so blinkered – so ignorant of, and uninterested in, the systemic processes which shape the country he so desires to run – would surely have made a poor President in any case. And in this respect, Romney should serve as a wake-up call to other privileged individuals who fall prey to the same unjustified assumptions about their own utility or relevance in public service.

The brutal truth is that Western politics, at every level, needs fewer people like me. I’m (hopefully) not malicious, feeble-minded, or callous (unlike Mr Romney, I’ve never even been caught on tape disparaging ethnic minorities as welfare-junkies). But my basic identities – middle-class, white, male, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, English, Southern – are already over-represented to saturation point throughout the political sphere. Of course there are some individuals who, despite this background, do just happen to have a unique idea or perspective to bring to politics. But if your formative experiences have been very similar to those of the people already in power then you start at a severe disadvantage in this regard.

If the next generation of Camerons, Cleggs, and Milibands want to do more than just pay lip service to the idea of greater representation, they might consider not seizing the reins of power in the first place. This line of thinking, like positive discrimination policies, has the potential to come across as patronising – but then, privilege also patronises its beneficiaries, devaluing their achievements by skewing the playing field in their favour. The genie of non-meritocracy has long left the bottle, if indeed it ever inhabited the bottle at all.

It’s not my intention, of course, to imply that being privileged should be a disqualification from office, either legally or in terms of electability. But I do believe that people in my own socio-economic niche should always think more carefully than others before assuming that they constitute the breath of fresh air that political needs. Just as freedom of speech is not an obligation to bellow racist slogans at passers-by, the freedom to vote and to run for office is not a mandate to horde political power among the already empowered. In politics, as in so much else, the rule is simple: just try not to be Mitt Romney.