[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Amy Sullivan has an article on The New Republic’s website this morning, calling Mitt Romney “insufferably cheap,” and arguing that the “frugal quirks” which have been well-documented in recent news stories–according to the Washington Post, Romney “duct-tapes the holes in his gloves….rinses and stacks the dishes at the sink before loading the dishwasher after family holiday meals….picks up his own dry cleaning, pulls his own suitcase, eats at burger joints, counts his change”–reveal a “pathological” personality, make Romney “sound like a complete loon,” and “must make him a bit annoying to be around.” I respectfully disagree with all those claims. Far from making Romney seem like a tightwad jerk, learning about Romney’s devotion to personal penny-pinching–though only in some areas of his life–does more to make him seem to my eyes like an authentic human being I can relate to, than anything else that he’s done or has been said about him in all his years in the public eye. I’m not going to vote for him, but for the first time, I feel as though I kind of like the guy.
It surprises me to read Sullivan express such vehemence on this point, because the larger story about Romney’s inconsistent frugality is one that pertains, at least as much as to his personal habits and economic class, to his (and my) religious faith, and talking about faith and politics is one of the things which Sullivan has done long and well (even when I disagree with her). But in this case she misses the story entirely, despite David Campbell having opened the door to this argument in his contribution to the Washington Post piece. Campbell, the co-author of a sweeping analysis of American religious beliefs and their relevance to politics, and a Mormon like Romney and I, observes that in Mormonism “there is a strong egalitarian impulse….There’s no paid clergy, so you might very well have someone who is a schoolteacher as the bishop and within the flock investment bankers and neurosurgeons, but he’s the pastor and in charge. Beyond that, there’s this ethos of people being not just frugal, but also using foresight in their planning.” That might seem like a rather banal observation, and so one that Sullivan–whose focus in her article is both the supposed weirdness of a wealthy and successful presidential contender “sweating the small stuff, as well as the presumed hypocrisy of a multi-millionaire who talks about job creation yet refuses to hire a contractor to do some landscaping which he figures he could do himself–could ignore while building her argument. But actually Campbell’s comments–about both Mormonism’s ethic of frugal planning, and its often-unexplored egalitarian implications–provide a valuable insight to Romney’s mind.
Mormonism, as has been frequently noted, was for a decades a persecuted religion. It is also an American religion which found its lasting home, and developed many of its still-enduring practices and norms, in the at-the-time unsettled American West. The idealization of the sacrifices of 19th-century Mormon refugees and colonizers, and of the twin pioneer virtues of self-sufficiency and collective responsibility, remain vibrant throughout much of the Mormon church today. And for Romney, as the descendent of a branch of Mormons which actually fled to United States to Mexico to continue to live their faith, those principles of frugally sacrificing wants and comforts for the sake of securing long-range needs and goals would presumably being doubly-present in his thought. To be sure, this kind of frugality is hardly unique to Mormons; millions of people who lived through difficult times like the Great Depression and passed on those lessons to their children similarly embraced such homespun conservative and self-sufficient wisdom as “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” But what Sullivan misses is that, within the Mormon church, with its long-standing (and, yes, often ignored) encouragement of its members to plant gardens, to maintain long-term food supplies, and to eschew personal luxury (several of the prophetic figures in the Book of Mormon, following Isaiah, explicitly condemn fine clothing, and Joseph Smith himself, in one of his revelations included in our text the Doctrine and Covenants, urged church members to content themselves with plain clothing and those things they could make themselves), such frugal principles operate not as a call to cheapness, but to piety.
And not just a personal piety, but a cultural one: indeed, a counter-cultural one. And here is where Sullivan’s accusation of Romney’s inconsistency really missed the boat: she failed to recognize that the whole point of that frugality for Mormons, at least originally, was not to serve some sort of solely personal virtue, but to collectively bless the whole. The usually unstated but nonetheless clear reason for food storage was so that others–one’s family or neighbors or the whole congregation or community–would have stores to fall back on and share when bad harvests or outside forces threatened. Mormon cheapness–of sacrificing luxurious pleasures for limited and practical needs, of forgoing expensive expertise and learning instead to do without or do it oneself–was a function of the Zion-building ideal, of a community jointly sacrificing (by, for example, supporting the local Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, rather than ordering through the Sears and Roebuck catalog) for the sake of the employment and income and sustenance of everyone else. This kind of economic ethic, which was an important supplement to the collectivized economics which early Mormons practiced throughout the 19th century, obviously runs counter to the entrepreneurial, expansive, debt-addicted, and acquisitive ethos of American capitalism today–and especially counter to the rapacious financial practice of “economic restructuring” which made Bain Capital and Mitt Romney his hundreds of millions. As Laura McKenna and many other writers have noted over the years since the economic meltdown of 2008, being frugal–doing your own laundry, growing your own food, traveling cheap, saving old clothes and furniture–is the truly counter-cultural idea of our moment, because it resists the presumptions of consumer capitalism itself. And of course, if there is one thing that Mitt Romney, in all his variations, has never been, it’s a cultural opponent of capitalism.
To be fair, our church isn’t much of one either any longer; despite the Mormon welfare program and its many other gestures towards economic equality and community, the ideal of Zion is mostly long gone from our practices today. So it really may well be that whatever Romney’s religious inheritance, his tight-fisted reputation has nothing to do with any kind of pioneer ethic, and have everything to do with just his own personal tastes and his father’s frugality; certainly his performance at the Republican National Convention, which on its final day highlighted the faith experiences and numerous examples of church service which have shaped Romney as a person, nonetheless not only didn’t connect that history with his faith’s communitarian legacy, but actually, if implicitly, pushed the opposite thesis: that Mormonism is as American as, well, business. And on that basis, perhaps Sullivan’s snarks at Romney’s cheapness rightly connect with the inconsistency between his habits and his economic message of job growth. Ultimately though, mocking Romney for his sometimes ham-fisted attempts at self-sufficiency misses the bigger picture. First, that self-sufficiency and frugality, assuming they don’t border on miserliness, are real personal virtues. And second, that Romney’s own faith long insisted strongly on personal responsibility….as part of larger projects of sacrifice, conservation, local production, and mutual support. Romney’s plan calls for selective austerity, but comparatively little by way of shared sacrifice. That’s the real scandal.