On Mitt Romney and deficits: insecurity deficit, empathy deficit

Like Mitt Romney, I attended a boarding school. Unlike Mitt Romney, I did not have wealthy parents or even marginally well-off parents. At the time, my mother was a public schoolteacher and my father employed in social work. Instead of family wealth, I had a scholarship to said boarding school, one where the other boarders were like Romney in family wealth, people whose parents were in high political office or playing with oil in Kuwait. People who were "legacy" students at the school, there because their parents attended before them. To add to all of that heavy weight of high society and wealth, this happened also to be the era of The Preppy Handbook, a celebration of all things prep, although if I remember correctly, it did include a section on the "prep-punk connection."

I arrived at the school at age 13, wearing some knock-off-brand of tennis shoes and some knock-off brand of designer jeans, bringing with me my small-town sensibilities and wardrobe and an utter incapacity to understand most social interactions among my peers. The first person who met me somehow immediately recognized my name and said, "You're that scholarship student, aren't you? You must be smart." And I responded, trying to brush off the "smart" comment, "No, just poor." It all went downhill from there, nine straight months of merciless persecution, mostly involving people setting me up as a "thief" for everything from an entire load of laundry (!) to a few bucks to buy candy bars. I had stolen none of it, but my reputation was sealed from the first incident, around week three of the school year. When I left, though, I was a lot less small town in my sensibilities, slightly more savvy about social interactions after an intense 9 months of direct peer instruction, and at least I now owned the requisite Levis 501 buttondowns and some penny loafers.

That sort of systematic bullying in an environment you can't escape because you live there might possibly have made me feel an even stronger empathy than others felt for the boy at Mitt Romney's school whom Romney and his Prep School Posse held down while brutally cutting off his hair. Romney to this day doesn't seem to think that this behavior was all that bad. He seems oblivious to an understanding of the externally forced social insecurity that led to and derived from that incident or to the lifelong scars something like that inflicts. 

Based on his life story, Romney also appears never to have lived a life of financial insecurity, either, his brief, stock money-supported existence in a basement notwithstanding. He's apparently never had the experience of going to bed at night with a mind in chaos over which bills to pay first, which ones will keep the lights on, which ones are headed for debt collection in the next week, which ones will lead to losing the house. He's never experienced waking up in the morning to face a day like the one the day before, with a negative bank balance and creditors calling on the phone, increasingly rude and blunt, humiliating you even as you know that thanks to the cut in hours at your minimum wage job, you don't even have the money to buy food for dinner, much less pay the winter utility bill. He's never had these factors force him to turn to food stamps or child insurance health programs or Medicaid just to keep his family fed ... or alive.

He's clearly never felt that gut-seizing nausea that washes over you when something that's obviously a hospital bill shows up in your mailbox months after you were in the hospital, demanding payment--immediately--in the four digits, despite the fact that you have insurance. He's never known how the mind instantly descends after you open the envelope into all of that chaos again, struggling to calculate its way out of an intractable arithmetic that forces choices he'll never understand. That stress, that day-to-day existence, is alien to his experience and he seems incapable of empathizing with it. Perhaps it takes living that insecurity to know that sometimes, no matter how smart, how careful, how enterprising, how well educated, how assiduous you are in the way you conduct your life and work, sometimes, a monstrous fate comes along and kicks the legs right out from under you, wounding you so effectively that even placing your feet on the ground again seems impossible. 

If Romney had once experienced any of these things, he might have a little more understanding of some of the 47% he so dismissively rejects as unimportant to him, to his being elected president. Of course, much of that 47% consists of people who have paid their dues, in the form of a lifetime of employment and paying into "entitlement" funds, or in the form of risking their lives, every day, for their country. That alone makes his dismissal of the "47%" abhorrent and indefensible. But his lack of empathy for the remainder, his accusations that people in this percentage "believe they are victims"? Also indefensible.

Romney clearly lacks foreign policy experience, but he also lacks the ability to empathize with those on the home front whose lives are foreign to him. Perhaps this empathy deficit has driven his poor performance in his foreign policy forays--an ability to walk in another culture's shoes and understand that culture is the essence of diplomacy. At home, though, this empathy deficit means something deeper.

Not everyone has to live a life of desperation to understand those who live desperate lives. And sometimes, people who've lived lives of desperation and come out on top lack empathy, too, and expect everyone to be as scrappy and successful as they are. But Romney, who seems pretty well attuned to people just like him, could have used a little of that insecurity to shape himself into something that looks more like a leader who understands his nation's citizens. His empathy deficit casts him instead as a person without compassion, one who shouldn't be allowed to make decisions about helping--or not helping--the people of this nation when he doesn't even have the capacity to understand why they might need help in the first place.