Gingrich’s Magic Word
Newt Gingrich’s resounding win in Saturday’s South Carolina primary was remarkable in itself, considering Romney’s 25-point lead in one poll held just after New Hampshire; but what was most surprising was the manner of his win. He won over Republican voters attacking unrestrained capitalism, seized the ‘outsider’ label while emphasising his experience in government, and won over social conservatives amidst the revelation that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. How did he manage all this? With one magic word.
To understand the power of this word to Republican voters, one must consider America as it is, rather than as it wants to be. The United States wants to count itself as a classless society, in stark contrast to the rigid social structure of Britain. Rick Santorum claimed in a debate that there were ‘no classes in America’ – a spurious but popular claim. This anti-classism contributes to one of the most persistent mysteries in American politics – why the white working class continues to vote for corporate tax cuts, reductions in welfare, and endless legislation that favours the factory owner over the factory worker. It appears counter-intuitive, and it is, but it is based in the American psyche: the true belief in the Horatio Alger fairy tale of rising to the top, a rags-to-riches self made man. One shouldn’t, therefore, legislate against big business or technocrats, because that could be you one day.
With this in mind, the concept of class for the Republican voter takes on a backward, European feel. The working class man who acknowledges his position and backs calls for welfare, healthcare and strong unions is accused of lacking ambition, of perpetuating his position and, most of all, of being un-American. Identifying as part of a class becomes a rejection of patriotism, as it subverts American individualism, implies a closer connection to a foreigner of the same class than to an American of a different one, and suggests factionalism in domestic matters, rather than thinking of the good of the whole country.
But it is difficult to keep up this ‘classless’ image when income equality in the USA is worse than in Tunisia, Yemen or Egypt, and two-thirds of the nation believes there are ‘strong conflicts’ between rich and poor. The recession has brought these divides into the light, and spawned the Occupy movement. Though South Carolina Republicans are unlikely to agree with the politics of Occupy, the handwritten tales of hardship on the wearethe99percent blog transcend ideology.
Newt Gingrich is a conservative Republican millionaire who believes in cutting taxes for the wealthy, eliminating capital gains and laying off unskilled workers in favour of low-income child labour, but it was on the issue of unrestrained capitalism that he fought Mitt Romney in South Carolina – and won. He did this without facing claims of hypocrisy or alienating his conservative base, all because of that word ‘elite’. The ‘elites’ are portrayed as rich, intellectual and liberal, but most importantly out of touch with the common man. The Republican electorate don’t care if someone is richer than them; they care if someone seems to think he’s better than them. They don’t mind Romney being a millionaire, but an East Coast, Francophone millionaire who ‘likes to fire people’ is a different story. It is the portrayal of Bain Capital as hurting small businesses, and Romney talking about worrying about ‘getting a pink slip’ that stick. These are the attacks that win the votes of the Republican working class.
The hatred of the elites even protected Gingrich from a scandal that could potentially have destroyed his candidacy. His ex-wife’s revelation that he had asked her for an open marriage quite possibly should have led to the eradication of his conservative and evangelical support, but when confronted with it in Friday’s debate he dealt with it perfectly, attacking the ‘liberal media’ for cheapening the debate by bringing it up. He accused this intellectual elite of not understanding what the people really cared about, and so the people stopped caring about his infidelity.
Possibly most important in all of this is that through this word, and the concept it represents, Gingrich has found a way of attacking Romney that will bring him immediate votes in the primaries and reduce Romney’s electability in the actual Presidential contest. While right-wingers hear the ‘elite’ argument, the rest of the country hear about his big business ties and ‘corporations are people’ outlook. What this means is, the longer the race goes on, the less Romney looks like a viable candidate to take on Obama.
Whether the eventual nominee is a bruised and battered Mitt Romney or Gingrich pulls off a massive shock; a competition that runs all the way to the convention may leave the Republicans needing magic to take back the White House.