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Mitt Romney, Culture Warrior

July 30, 2012

I wonder if it's connecting too many dots at this point to conclude that Mitt Romney is something of a cultural snob, whether "Anglo-Saxon" or European. He certainly has a thing for David Landes.

For at least the second time since May, Romney on Monday invoked Landes, a retired economic historian at Harvard, and his well-known 1998 book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, to argue that "culture makes all the difference" in the success or failure of societies. This time Romney was talking about the "stark difference in economic vitality" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and comparing the Israelis favorably to the Palestinians. (Which of course outraged the latter; Saeb Erekat, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, came close to calling Romney an ignoramus, saying his statement was "racist" and that he "doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.")

In May, Romney delivered the commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and also invoked Landes' thesis, saying that "central to America's rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition." 

Before Romney's trip abroad, an anonymous aide stirred controversy by allegedly telling The Guardian newspaper in Britain that the candidate valued the "Anglo-Saxon" connection between the U.S. and Britain. The campaign disavowed the comments, but Romney's devotion to Landes makes you wonder whether that aide, whoever he or she is, was simply trying to channel the candidate's cultural passions. 

Nothing wrong with a little cultural pride, of course, as long as you get the argument right. And Romney tends to overstate the starkness of Landes' conclusions. In his book, Landes does make the case that differences in culture were central to Europe's 500-year-long global dominance, but he writes that many other factors, including geography and climate, also came into play. Landes, disabled by a stroke, no longer does interviews, but his daughter Alison Landes told me on the telephone today that her father's thesis was "more nuanced" than Romney has been laying out.

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