Michael Gerson: Mouthing nonsense

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: September 22, 2012
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The velocity and compression of the news cycle have become discrediting. It took just hours for a general assessment that Mitt Romney's Boca Raton video was fatal to his candidacy to become a broad suspicion that the initial assessment was overblown. When every event in a campaign is presented as cosmic, the overall impression is comic.

In fact, the video confirmed an existing stereotype of Romney and Republicans as wealthy white businessmen. This probably does not change the fundamental dynamic of the race, because few imagined Romney to be a closet populist. The problem for Romney is that the fundamental dynamic is not favorable. A nation disillusioned with the incumbent has unresolved questions about the suitability of the challenger. The video holds those questions open at a time when Romney should be answering them.

It is possible that America will turn, in the end, to a solid, competent Republican stereotype. But that raises another issue concerning the video — a matter of governing, not politics. Is this Romney's view of the nature of our social crisis?

While the Romney video was making news, I was reading some recent research by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. He recounts an interview with a woman given the fictional name of Mary Sue, who lives in a declining industrial town in Ohio. Mary Sue's parents divorced when she was young. Her mother became a stripper and left for days at a time. Her stepmother beat her and confined her to a single room.

Mary Sue went in and out of juvenile detention. One boyfriend burned her arms with cigarettes. Her current partner has two children by two other women.

Is such a story really explainable as a failure of personal responsibility? That seems simplistic and callous. Putnam describes these social conditions as “depressingly typical” in America's working class. He measures a number of growing gaps between poorer and more affluent Americans — gaps of parental time and investment, of religious and community involvement, of academic achievement — that widen a class divide and predict a “social mobility crash” for millions of Americans.