Mitt Romney and the Culture of Expediency

11/30/2011 01:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012
  • Paul Stoller Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University; Author, Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

Mitt Romney's duplicity is yet again in the news. This time the GOP Presidential hopeful's flip-flopping is the subject of a new Democratic National Committee (DNC) web video, called "Mitt vs. Mitt." The web video recounts Mitt's "fight against himself"... "the story of two men trapped in one body." As the narrative points out Mr. Romney's record of pandering is clear. During his time in public life, he has been on both sides of such major issues as abortion, government stimulus and bailouts, health care reform, and immigration.

According to the DNC:


The bottom line here is that character and values matters. When he ran for President last time, Mitt Romney admitted he'd changed his position on a lot of issues. This time, he claims he's Mr. Consistency. Mitt Romney can't even take a position on taking a position. Republicans' favorite straw man is to talk about 'uncertainty' as a threat to growth. If people are scared of uncertainty, they should be terrified of Mitt Romney."

In contemporary political culture, flip-floppers get hammered and pay a high political price for their ideological machinations. Many Americans seem to want leaders of firm, unwavering conviction -- men and women who do not bend to the wind of fickle public opinion.

Despite the challenges to his character and his penchant for issue switching, Mr. Romney's candidacy has attracted millions of supporters. Although it's rather early to place too much faith in 2012 presidential election poll numbers, Mr. Romney looks like a formidable candidate who could very well be elected President of the United States.

How can someone who has flip-flopped on so many issues still manage to garner political support in a political climate that seems to reward the aura of unshakable conviction? Maybe this resilience stems from public disillusionment, if not distaste for President Obama's policies. Perhaps there is a more profound reason for Mitt Romney's resilience.

Here's my take on this contradiction.

We live today in a culture of expediency. On one side of the culture of expediency we are overwhelmed by the complexities and stressors of contemporary social life, we yearn for simple solutions to a complex set of personal, social and economic problems that barrage us with too much information, too many due dates, and too many obligations. People who present "easy-to-understand" solutions attract our attention and perhaps our political support. On the other side of the culture of expediency, the same set of contemporary stressors compels us to take short cuts. Instead of confronting our issues head on, we sweep them under rug. We postpone difficult deliberations. We ask for extensions when we miss a due date. We are victims of expedient workmanship (work fast, do less with cheaper materials, and charge more) that threatens the safety of our crumbling bridges, our aging railroads, or pot-holed roads, our delicate vehicles as well as our factories, oil refineries, power plants, not to forget offshore oil rigs. Think about the "shortcuts" that caused the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the culture of expediency you get rewards -- or bonuses -- for "getting over" or "gaming the system." In the culture of expediency you are condemned if you say that you made a mistake or if you admit to a failure of personal judgment. None of the Wall Street "masters of the universe," men and women who are experts at "getting over" and "gaming the system," have been convicted for the crimes they committed prior to the economic meltdown of 2008. It is unlikely that they will ever be punished for gross, if not criminal errors of judgment that have brought economic pain to millions of American households. These "masters of the universe" are central actors in the culture of expediency whose amoral exercise of economic power has doubtless had impact on the social behavior of many of our young people.

Consider the students at the public university where I teach. My students feel the full brunt of the contemporary stressors that contribute to the growth of the culture of expediency. Most of them are saddled with student debt. In addition, most of them, who come from families of modest means, have to work one or even two jobs to make ends meet. The combination of two jobs and a full load of five courses constrains their time and saps their energy. They have little time to study, let alone reflect critically on scholarly debates that could refine their thinking about the world. Accordingly, they miss due dates, ask for extensions, or sometimes hand in half-baked essays. In the worse case scenario, they plagiarize -- a very powerful way to "get over."

Is this a good way to learn about complexities of life in the 21st Century?

The culture of expediency also plays a central role in contemporary politics. Many politicians, including Mitt Romney -- at least according to the DNC and his GOP rivals -- will say anything or take any position to get elected. Like the aforementioned "masters of the universe," Mitt Romney has mastered the art of pandering, which is a key element in the culture of expediency.

Mr. Romney's political resilience may well be a sign of our social resignation to the culture of expediency. At best such a culture will lead us onto an endless path of uncertainty--more political indecision and gridlock, more shoddy institutional patchwork, and more simplistic policies that are certain to fail in complex social environments. At worst resignation to the culture of expediency will convince an uncritical public to elect to the presidency Mitt Romney, which, following the logic of the DNC, is a terrifying prospect.