The Romney camp is hurriedly trying to distance the GOP candidate from remarks made by an unnamed ‘adviser’ to a British newspaper on Tuesday that touted Romney’s “Anglo-Saxon heritage” and suggested that President Obama’s administration “didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we [the U.K. and the U.S.] have.”
This is about as stupid a remark as a political associate can make: not only does it sound like a racial slur (a black man can’t understand the deep ties between white America and white England), it sounds like some kind of weird WASP supremacy talk—the kind of thing people said 120 years ago when they compared the “virtuous”, “old stock Americans” with the immigrants coming through Ellis Island.
That doesn’t just annoy African-Americans; there are a lot of Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans and a long list of other people whose blood boils at the thought of Wasps staking out some special claim to being more American than thou.
So strong are these feelings that the term “Anglo-Saxon” has pretty much dropped out of American discourse, and you will almost never hear an American use the term. (Originally, it referred to the Germanic invaders who settled in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire: the Angles and the Saxons were said to be the predominant tribes among the invaders.)
The clueless source of the quote has probably already had his mouth washed out with soap and will soon be coordinating the get-out-the-vote effort in Point Barrow, but in fairness, “Anglo-Saxon” doesn’t have to mean quite what his critics made of it.
Overseas people talk about the Anglo-Saxons all the time. “Anglo-Saxon capitalism” is what lefties from Russia to Argentina by way of Paris and Algiers blame for all the ills of the modern world. When Tony Blair joined George Bush to attack Iraq, people all over “Old Europe” referred to the “Anglo-Saxon powers.” It’s basically used interchangeably as a synonym for Anglo-American, with the added advantage that Canada and Australia can also be included under the “Anglo-Saxon” label.
The key, of course, is that Anglo-Saxon is a cultural term these days, not an ethnic one. It’s a culture that has spread through America to include people who have no blood or kinship to Britain. In God and Gold I wrote about the rise of the neo-WASP, people whose personal family trees didn’t go back to ancient Anglo-Saxons like Ethelred the Unready and King Egbert, but who were steeped in and helped carry forward a set of ideas and values that were shaped in British history and the American experience.
Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, for example, may not have many family castles back in Olde England, but, like the Irish Jack Kennedy and the German-Jewish Walter Lippmann, they help to define what Anglo-Saxon or, if you prefer, Anglo-American ideas and values mean.
And this is where the source really got it wrong. Apparently whoever it was who launched this teapot tempest belonged to the Obama-as-Kenyan-socialist school of thought. In his own way, however, President Obama is one of the neo-Waspiest men in the country. He is not a product of Kenyan villages or third world socialism. He was educated at the Hawaiian equivalent of a New England prep school, and spent his formative years in the Ivies. He has much more in common with Harvard-educated technocrats like McGeorge Bundy than with African freedom fighters and third world socialists of the 1970s.
President Obama’s vision of a strong central government leading the people along the paths of truth and righteousness has “New England” stamped all over it. Puritan Boston believed in a powerful government whose duty was to promote moral behavior and punish the immoral; by 1800 many of the Puritan descendants were turning Unitarian and modernist, but while they lost their love of Christian doctrine they never abandoned their faith in the Godly Commonwealth and the duty of the virtuous to make the rest of the world behave. The New England mind has been open to insights and ideas that come from the third world ever since Henry David Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists read the Hindu scriptures in translation, but Obama is no more of a Muslim or an African socialist than Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Hindu.
So the advisor was twice wrong: it was stupid to use a term that offends huge numbers of people and leaves you open to a charge of racism, and it was blind to miss the deep homegrown roots of the President’s political worldview.
If Wasps, and especially pedigree-proud Wasps who look down their noses at other people, aren’t particularly popular in America today, people who have found a way to promote and embody those old values in a new way continue to inspire.
A recent poll from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found that Condoleezza Rice, were she to appear on the GOP ticket as VP, could drastically alter the balance in the presidential election. With Secretary Rice on the ticket, the presidential race in Pennsylvania is tied and President Obama’s gap in Michigan narrows by six percentage points. “Rice is a very unusually popular political figure. In Pennsylvania her favorability rating is 60/27 and in Michigan it’s 56/28,” says the PPP.
Americans don’t care as much as they used to about races and bloodlines. But they care a lot about values and ideals. Someone like Secretary Rice, who strikes many Americans as a kind of embodiment of core Anglo-American ideas like the importance of liberty and the need to be strong, benefits from the deep affinity that Americans retain for what they see as the values that have made this country rich, strong and free.