Mitt Romney didn’t lose the election because he’s a Mormon, he lost because he isn’t Mormon enough.
All political candidates must prove that they’re just like us, yet this requires some demystification: you cannot just tell us that you’re like us, you must also explain how the strangest part of you makes sense to us.
George W. Bush was not only elected (and re-elected) because of neoconservative enthusiasm, Clinton backlash, or affinity with his evangelical narrative of the reformed playboy. More consequential was the sense that he was available to you, even as he also was privy to loci of unreachable power. Liberal critics couldn’t understand: How could someone from such a spoiled background have convinced a nation they would want to have a beer with him?
The answer was “W”: the word-inventing MBA in the stands, hollering for your son’s JV soccer team. There are a lot more people in America who prefer to believe that economics is the hapless conjure of jokey sons than the manipulation of overlords seeking to drain you of everything you’ve got. Bush was familiar in his prodigal elitism, his dunce-cap capitalism. His performance sought to suggest that he was like us.
This is what Barack Obama did, transforming his itinerant childhood and complicated genealogy into something profoundly relatable. There will, of course, always be those who resist your translated portrait—who will always see in Bush a dumb frat boy, or in Obama a Muslim with Black Power tendencies—but this is what it means to risk entrance into the public sphere: that you will be misread despite your best reading.
In the end, the most potent secret is the one advertised, but not revealed. And Romney’s mistake has been to avoid explaining the most open secret of his leadership, namely just how Mormon he is. He ought to have unveiled the relationship between his particular religious sensibility and his ideas for American success. He should have announced at every pit stop that he had met the world through his missionary work; that he came from a good Christian home that emphasized the principles of hard work and self-sacrifice; that he keeps a weekly calendar guided by the principles of Stephen R. Covey; and keeps a marriage because he believes those commercials are right—diamonds are forever, and so is this bond. He should have proclaimed his financial success was the result of all this earnestness, and explained private equity as just another way to organize free enterprise. Not because it’s a crafty re-framing of his biography, but because it is also true: it’s true to the very thing his supporters find so solid, and his detractors find so discomfiting, about Romney.
Read on at Religion Dispatches.