Toward the end of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee became so worried about the morale of his troops that he appeared on the battlefield several times, ready to lead his men into action. How did his troops react? They surrounded his horse and forced him to the rear, refusing to go into battle until they were sure he was out of danger.
America was then — and was for most of its history — what sociologists call a “deferential society.” People were willing to follow a leader not of their own class. Lee was a Virginia aristocrat married to Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter. He was personally opposed to slavery, he backed his wife’s efforts to set up an illegal school for African-Americans on his estate, and he finally liberated the family’s own slaves in 1862. Yet Lee still felt indebted to his Southern heritage. He had little in common with the journeymen and backwoods farmers who made up his army, yet they were more than willing to defer to his leadership, and it was his military genius that kept them in the war for so long.
Deference to leaders who do not necessarily share your background or agree with you on everything is in the fiber of representative government. It is enshrined in the Constitution. In fact, there probably never would have been a Constitution if the Americans of 1787 hadn’t been willing to defer to the “assembly of demigods” (as Jefferson described them) that convened in Philadelphia, closed the doors to the press, sealed the windows to eavesdroppers, and privately debated the future of the nation.
We now live in an age when people are less and less willing to defer to leaders who are not of their own class and kind. Exhibit No. 1 is the current rejection of Mitt Romney by Tea Party Republicans and the subsequent elevation of Rick Santorum, a man who has none of the qualities of temperament suitable to a President, but who perfectly expresses the anger and sense of exclusion that is fundamental to the Tea Party.
And of course Tea Party Republicans have plenty to be angry about. They perceive, quite rightly, that they are the principal victims of President Obama’s coalition of bureaucrats and government-dependents that is slowly strangling this country. Almost without exception, they are small-business owners, independent professionals, heads of families, people of modest means and backgrounds — just as Rick Santorum describes them. They play by the rules and believe in the old America of effort and opportunity, but they perceive — correctly — that the game is not going to last much longer. With nearly half the population paying no income taxes, with the unemployed languishing for two years on government checks, with ranks of “disabled” swelling on Social Security, with construction cranes dotting the Washington skyline, and with congressmen holding seminars on how to apply for government jobs, they know there is very little room in this economy anymore for free enterprise. Their job — as President Obama so eloquently explained to Joe the Plumber — is to “share the wealth” they have earned through hard work and self-discipline, so someone down the street with no job and four illegitimate children can live on the dole. They are angry, and rightfully so.
What they do not perceive is that they are no longer a majority of the country. In fact, they are a minority of a minority — a minority in the Republican Party, which is itself a minority party. They may be furious as all hell, but the general public does not share their anger. Most people are concerned with paying less taxes and maybe getting a part-time job with the school district, so they can get good benefits. If Tea Party Republicans succeed in nominating Rick Santorum, it will be like when the Populists nominated William Jennings Bryan in 1896: a magnificent triumph for a rump faction, but a disaster in the general election. Once Santorum starts spouting about banning birth control and abolishing public schools, he will be like those Populists who were suddenly heard sprinkling their calls for free coinage of silver with vegetarianism and mystical interpretations of the Bible — the things that historian Richard Hofstadter said reflected “too many long nights on the prairie.”
In his current best-seller, Coming Apart, Charles Murray talks about how the liberal intelligentsia has isolated itself from the rest of America, with its own cultural icons and reference points that have little or no meaning to the mainstream. That is true. Unfortunately, it is also true of the Tea Party. They have a private vocabulary of Hayek and von Mises, rent-seeking and marginal tax rates, “elitist” and “fungible,” that lights up the neurons of fellow conservatives and libertarians but has little or no meaning to the general public. Take home schooling. Santorum can talk breezily about home schooling his children in the White House, because as a 53-year-old autodidact, he thinks he knows everything. But lots of people in this country — millions upon millions, in fact — don’t think they know everything and want their children taught by people who know more than they do. Granted, they aren’t getting much of that in public schools these days, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to try. They see schools as their children’s opportunity for advancement. If Santorum thinks he’s going to form a majority out of home schoolers, he’s likely to end up as the first candidate in history to lose all 50 states.
What the Tea Party needs to do is look for allies. There are other people in the country who share their concerns, if not their bitterness. Who are some of those natural allies? The most obvious are people who have been successful in the private sector but who have remained true to the system that made them. They may have achieved wealth but they haven’t gone aristocratic, become environmentalists, celebrated the “era of limits,” talked about “sustainability,” decided that we’ve got enough wealth in this country and the time has come to divide up what we already have (excluding my part, of course), and settled down to live gracefully on wind and sunshine.
In other words, a natural ally might be Mitt Romney, or someone very like him.
When the alliance of labor unions, urban Catholics, and Southern rednecks combined to take over this country in 1932, they didn’t do it by nominating Huey Long or Al Smith for president. They did it by choosing a Hudson River aristocrat who had so much blue blood in his veins that he didn’t mind becoming a “traitor to his class” and trashing a few Wall Street plutocrats along the way. They chose someone outside of their class who was willing to speak for them, yet someone prominent and successful enough to become a national hero. And it worked. Cue John F. Kennedy in 1960 for the same result.
Tea Party members seem unwilling to do the same. They don’t like Mitt Romney because he is not “one of us.” He had a rich father and went to Cranbrook and Harvard Business School. He lives in Massachusetts and doesn’t feel revulsion while visiting an Ivy League campus. He probably even reads the New York Times. How can he possibly represent us? He doesn’t share our background, our hatred of the press, our disdain for New York and Washington.
What they don’t see is that Romney already is a traitor to his class. He didn’t smoke marijuana at Harvard. He didn’t participate in student demonstrations — he was married and raising children, for heaven’s sake! He’s made lots of money, but he hasn’t tried to deflect envy by joining the Sierra Club, hobnobbing with movie stars or celebrating Occupy Wall Street. Romney has lived among the liberal intelligentsia but never become part of it. He’s a natural leader for those struggling independent Americans who make up the Tea Party. Yet they refuse to see him that way.
No political movement or candidate has ever gotten anywhere in this country without finding its natural allies. When Ronald Reagan went to the 1976 GOP convention with a chance of stealing the nomination, he took the bold step of naming an East Coast Republican, Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, as his Vice President. He knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere without uniting the party. He reprised this in 1980 by choosing his strongest rival, George Bush, the quintessential Connecticut Yankee. (Bush later did the opposite by choosing a nonentity in Dan Quayle, and it probably cost him the 1992 election.)
So ask yourself this: If Mitt Romney wins the nomination, do you think he’ll pick Santorum or Marco Rubio or some other Tea Party stalwart as his Vice President? I would bet the house on it. And if Santorum is nominated, do you think he will choose Romney, or Senators Richard Lugar or Lamar Alexander, as a stabilizing force from the Old Guard? I wouldn’t count on it. And, if not, how can he help from becoming the next Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle?