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Tana Wojczuk: Mitt Romney as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

November 1, 2012

In the aftermath of Sandy, it's time to reevaluate what it means to be dependent on government.

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Image from Flickr via ayacata7

By Tana Wojczuk

When Mitt Romney was secretly videotaped declaring his contempt for 47 percent of Americans as “dependent on government” it caused a mild flare up of umbrage, the moral equivalent of heartburn. On one hand, it could be that Romney simply chose the wrong words. He admitted that they were “not elegantly stated,” and Americans who pride themselves on independence might find it easy to exclude themselves from this category. After all, the words may have been ill-chosen, but he didn’t seem to be insulting anyone personally. However, this argument contradicts our expectations: that politicians are consummate actors, whose each word is scripted and carefully chosen.

In fact, Romney was speaking to a curated audience of potential fundraisers and his words should therefore hold up under careful scrutiny; they were carefully chosen to communicate with his audience. And, contrary to Barack Obama’s campaign ads, we should have no compunction about believing what Mitt Romney says.

Contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, our candidates are not beholden to us.

Romney says explicitly that dependency makes Americans “victims” because they believe “that government has a responsibility to care for them,” contrasting their dependency with his independence, not merely as a wealthy private citizen but as a political candidate. In declaring his independence from American voters, Romney is in fact speaking in a classical tradition of warrior-leaders like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The play Coriolanus was based on the life of a real Roman leader who had such success in battle that he is re-named for the city of Corioles which he had violently destroyed. Coriolanus returns to Rome, where he decides to run for Senate. But when he refuses to pander to the people to win their votes the Romans run him out of town (with a little egging-on by Coriolanus’ rivals). As Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt writes in his recent book Shakespeare’s Freedom : “It is Coriolanus’ proud refusal to participate in the popular rites of power—specifically the humble soliciting of votes and hence acknowledgement of dependency—that has lead to his exile” (107).

What is particularly troubling about Romney’s case is that the mutual dependency voters take for granted is for him a shameful sense of entitlement.

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows what happens when a leader rejects the democratic contract between the voters and the government. And though Shakespeare himself wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of governance by the masses, Coriolanus demonstrates that it is mutual dependency, at least as much as freedom and independence, that defines democratic values. America’s tripartite system of government ensures that our leaders are necessarily dependent both on each other and on the voters who elect them. As legal scholar Lawrence Lessig wrote in a recent Boston Review article “Democracy After Citizens United,” “The framers intended Congress to be ‘dependent upon the People alone.’ But the private funding of public campaigns has bred within Congress a second, and conflicting, dependency.”

With new laws such as Citizens United untying the bonds between the voters and their governing bodies, politicians become less dependent on the votes of the people, and at the same time they become more dependent on the funding that helps them secure these votes. And so, speaking to a gathering of wealthy donors, it is no wonder that Romney used the occasion to demonstrate his independence from American voters. Contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, our candidates are not beholden to us. Yes, they need our votes, but those votes are now strongly correlated with the amount of money spent on a campaign. So, while it may seem like Romney only miss-spoke, he was actually revealing a truth about how little candidates rely on voters after election day.

What is particularly troubling about Romney’s case is that the mutual dependency voters take for granted is for him a shameful sense of entitlement. The people’s expectation that government will provide is certainly a form of dependence, but it is not one-sided. The government should, according to our founding documents, be dependent on voters, who have vested them with their power (as a vessel filled with water). It is not because people “believe they are victims” that they expect the government to help them lead healthful lives, protect their individual liberty and yes, even provide a safety net in the off chance that some of them fall while making a flying leap toward personal happiness. Rather, it is because we expect the government to return the favor.

We need only look to Coriolanus to see how dangerous it is for a democratic republic to underestimate a leader is who rejects dependency. Coriolanus wants to govern Rome, but not the people of Rome, who he sees as speed bumps on his road to power. Disconnected and independent, the would-be ruler ultimately allies with Rome’s enemies to pillage his own country.

Tana Wojczuk is a nonfiction editor at Guernica and a lecturer in Columbia University’s Undergraduate Writing Program. @tanawojczuk

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