It is not so far-fetched to think that Jane Austen might have an opinion about America's imminent election.
Austen's "devotees" have always been "inclined to see her ghost," Claudia L. Johnson explains in her wonderful new book Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures. Even admirers who don't make contact tend to "foreclose the gap between Austen's time and our own, between the dead and the living, the fictional and the real" in a "sort of supra-historical time warp."
Though I'm not the ghost-seeing type, I'll take Austen's spectral history as imaginative license to summon her. If she were going to the polls on Tuesday, what would Jane Austen do?
This much I know. She would not vote for Mitt Romney.
First, her novels clearly rebuke economic self-interest. Austen mocks characters who flaunt their property like General Tilney and Mr. Rushworth. She punishes those who marry -- or want to marry -- for wealth, like Mr. Willoughby and Caroline Bingley. And she reserves special contempt for those who enrich themselves by hurting others as Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood and Mr. Elliot do. Mrs. John Dashwood even tells her husband that withholding financial support will benefit his sisters: "They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company.... Only conceive how comfortable they will be!" This sounds like Paul Ryan's claim that he'll do the poor a favor by cutting their aid.
We can debate whether Romney's success in private equity is as villainous as the John Dashwood's treatment of their relatives. But as a recent New Yorker editorial puts it, "private equity is concerned with rewarding winners." Like the Dashwoods, the beneficiaries leave the losers behind. In seeing individual "business success as a sure sign of moral virtue," Romney elevates the economics of self-interest.
Second, unlike the Romney budget, Austen supports the needy. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot proves her goodness by helping the tenants and remembering her impoverished friend Mrs. Smith. Emma's mistreatment of Miss Bates earns her Mr. Knightley's reprimand. "How could you be so unfeeling? ... She is poor.... Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done indeed!"
He could be describing Romney's plan to cut the safety net. Before Hurricane Sandy hit, candidate Romney suggested it would be "immoral" to continue funding FEMA.
Finally, Austen defends women's right to control their own bodies. In Northanger Abbey, the Thorpes hold Catherine to prevent her from walking. "Let me go... do not hold me," Catherine cries. The bodily danger is much more sexual and sinister in Mansfield Park. When Sir Thomas returns from his slave plantation, he stares at Fanny until she is "quite oppressed." Having sized her up, he next tries to make her marry Henry Crawford. When Fanny refuses, he is furious at her "independence of spirit."
Of course, Austen never refers to women's reproductive rights. But her language suggests she would support them were she fast-forwarded. "I am doing what I believe to be right," Catherine tells the Thorpes. When Sir Tomas attacks Fanny for deciding her sexual fate "without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you," we know Austen supports Fanny. As Elizabeth Bennet tells Lady Catherine, she alone is entitled "to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me." This is not a frivolous "happiness" we might associate with romance. It is the kind of political "happiness" invoked in the Declaration of Independence.
In 2002, Romey supported women's reproductive rights with language reminiscent of Elizabeth's: "This choice is a deeply personal one. Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government's." Now he "absolutely" wants Roe v. Wade to be overturned. The Republican Platform promotes a constitutional ban on abortion, making no exceptions for rape or incest. If he becomes president, Romney will presumably force the female "deference" to authority that Sir Thomas Bertram champions. What's left of the modern day Elizabeth's right to her "own opinion... without reference to any person... wholly unconnected" with herself would disappear.
Based on her distrust of economic self-interest, on her concern about the needy, and on her support of women's bodily rights, I'm sure Jane Austen would vote against Mitt Romney.
But would she support Barack Obama?
Well, I don't think Austen would be racist. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Austen never denigrates people of color, or Jews for that matter (two of the millions of reasons I love her).
Whether she would agree with Obama's call for an economy where "everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules" is less certain. Austen shows that economic policies are unfair, especially for women. But she is not necessarily an advocate for fairness. Except for Persuasion, economic inequality and social stratification are historical givens in her books. Her concern for the needy is similarly limited. Austen never calls for governmental responsibility (nor does she ever represent the truly indigent).
Then again, I'm sure two centuries would be sufficient time for her to come to her senses. We're dealing with a "supra-historical time warp" after all. The 2012 undead American Austen would have to care about fairness. And this, plus her rejection of Romney, make her electoral choice definitive.
On November 6, 2012, Jane Austen will vote for Barack Obama. With the specter of Mitt Romney as president, her ghost is nothing to fear.