Monday, September 17, 2012

In Mitt We Trust: A Love Story

Chad Shomura
  Ph.D. Candidate, Johns Hopkins University 

News headlines billed Ann Romney's RNC speech as an attempt to “humanize” Mitt. This characterization bespoke a deep Republican anxiety: if I were of GOP persuasion, I too would worry that the multimillionaire, long-haired-boy-hating, strap-pet-on-car-roof Romney seems out of touch with humanity, let alone American voters. The daunting task of humanizing Romney has become pressing, especially in light of his colleagues' cracks on women, such as Todd Akin's baffling understanding of anatomy and “legitimate rape” bullshit and Tom Smith's analogizing of rape-borne pregnancy with child-bearing out of wedlock. Humanizing Romney has been, as expected, a PR project, not an educational or political one; it has been about creating distance between Romney and reprehensible views, rather than gearing the president-hopeful toward championing women's rights and urging his party to do the same. So just how did Ann try to humanize Romney?
Ann stepped onstage and announced that she would not talk about politics or party, but about “love.” Amy Davidson, writing for The New Yorker, later asked “does love mean not having to talk about politics, or about money?” It's tempting to ask “what's love got to do with it?” and simply dismiss Ann's speech, like voices across the Twitterverse have, as irrelevant, stupid, and laughable. But doing so would underestimate the work done by the telling of love—the publics it forms and energizes, the types of politics it encourages and discourages, the worlds it aims to create or destroy.
For Ann, love is a many-splendored thing; it weaves together romance, nation, family, and faith. In Ann's story, love is something that women—actually, mothers—know intimately. Women for Ann are exemplified in motherhood, a station where they know love deeper than men, work harder than men, and feel the anxieties of daily living more intensely than men. Mothers deal with gasoline bills, grocery bills, their kids' sports bills. They are attuned to a “great collective sigh” of parental worries and hold the nation together. Because of these things, women know better and mother knows best.
So Ann, the Republicans' current emblem of domestic motherhood,4 was the night's spokeswoman of love, tasked with rallying a nation behind her husband. She spoke of her marriage's love, which began with the “boy” she met at a high school dance. She referred several times to Romney as this boy, the young man displayed in sepia snapshots onstage, as though the frozen image of his youth revealed something enduring and endearing about love and promise. Yet the Romney romance wasn't “storybook.” It had real difficulties, from health issues to having an ironing board as a dining table. These struggles made a “real marriage,” one whose love pours into family, community, and country, and Mitt has been a loving husband, father, son, friend, neighbor, and governor. “Look into your hearts,” Ann urged, as though we might find Mitt and his love there. It is a love that any woman—specifically, any mother—would recognize.
This intimate public clustering about a love plot is not new. Lauren Berlant has shown that since the 1830s in the United States, womanhood, sentimental romance, and affect have constellated as a “juxtapolitical” intimate public which keeps damaged worlds afloat fantasies of the sweet hereafter. This intimate public is juxtapolitical because, more often than not, it registers life-affirming authenticity in emotional expression divorced from political activity. Women are legitimated because they channel hope through narratives of love despite suffering and suffering disappointment at the hands of self-serving political elites. What might be different about the intimate public of Ann is that she is part of that elite. Sure, Ann's locus of enunciation is a white, affluent elsewhere, but her words hit home. As a Utah Republican delegate remarked after Ann's speech, “She may have privilege, but she understands.
Ann's intimate public may be one of those rare instances noted by Berlant in which intimate publics do political work. I say “may” because what Ann's insistence that “you can trust Mitt” amounts to remains unclear. Does it mean that we should vote for Romney and let him handle things once he's elected? Does it sidestep the political altogether, seeing affective identification and faith as enough? In any case, Ann presents a radically diminished politics, investing confidence—nay, trust—in a single person. Ann is not Barack Obama who, in recent speeches, has been trying to politicize his crowds, not only for the upcoming election but also for the long haul: Obama views people, not a single individual, as the agent of politics. Ann, on the other hand, reiterates the conservative creed of America under the umbrella of providence; that “no one will work harder,” that “no one will care more” expresses Ann's imagination of Mitt as marking the end of history. Indeed, Ann framed her husband not only as a caring human but as our Savior: “He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance.” You see, Ann says, Romney doesn't boast of his charity (i.e. his left hand doesn't know the doings of his right hand) and no one else will “move heaven and earth” to deliver a new America. In Ann's eyes, the boy at the dance grew up to be God. We see another strange side of Ann's intimate public: it humanizes but also deifies Romney so that he is like us but also absolutely different. So although Ann wanted to speak about love, her speech's point is that the Beatles were wrong—love is not all you need. You need Mitt. Mother may know best but Romney works best, so we need to sit back and let the Man do his job. In Mitt we trust?
So here's what it means to trust in Romney. It means casting one person as the starring role in an exaggerated story of human agency. It means twisting the social into a circuit for consolidating a majority by strangling difference. It means that concern for posterity lies in handing down the American Dream and not in averting the planetary catastrophe of climate change whose effects are present today. It means propping up heteronormal love and “real marriage,” invalidating subaltern intimacies, and authorizing the abusing, shaming, and violating of gender deviants, queers, and trans persons. It means that women are to be valued primarily, perhaps only, as mothers of both home and nation, rather than as persons with political capacities and rights to their bodies.
Trusting in Romney means believing that big business makes dreams come true and doesn't exploit the precarity of labor life under post-Fordism and neoliberalism. It means framing economic meltdown as the over-regulation rather than under-regulation of the market. It means that austerity is to become the new ordinary because “everyone has to make sacrifices,” though the poor are hit the hardest. It means that pain and discomfort are to be presented as universal experiences that frame the superrich as down-to-earth folks who thus deserve our vote of confidence. It means that calls to tax the wealthy come to express an anti-patriotic hatred of hard work and America. It means vilifying the poor for their imagined “entitlements” (i.e. the social safety net) rather than the wealthy for their real sense of entitlement (regarding tax breaks, state subsidies, media sycophancy, etc.)
Trusting in Romney means that politics is to be about representation, affective identification, and assurance rather than direct action, grassroots solidarity, and empowerment. It means pursuing American Exceptionalism with a beefed-up military. It means that the presidency should be a corporate position filled by CEOs who manage the United States with godlike business savvy. It means that corporations should count as people. It means that real-life struggle in America is located in the microeconomics of everyday life rather than waged against complex and longstanding structures of poverty framed by racism, settler colonialism, and patriarchy. Finally, it means a United States in which democracy is decaying, corroded by a love whose stay-at-home politics would leave our lives fraying while our hearts are melting.


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