Mitt, the Outsider
I've read a bit in recent days about Mitt Romney's Mormonism being an issue for some voters. Religious bigotry is almost as dead as racial bigotry as long as the practitioners of a religion also follow our secular legal system and respect the rights of others. I think the real issue voters have is what the decades he spent living in a culture as alien to Mormon values as modern Massachusetts might have done to Mitt Romney.
For a very long time there was a heavy stigma attached to being a Mormon, though it should be noted that it was not an issue when Romney's father George was considered a possible early favorite for the 1968 Republican nomination. Mormonism came up only as an aside to the question of whether George Romney was qualified because his parents, both U.S. citizens, were residents in Mexico when George was born, and they moved back to the U.S. when he was three years old. That said, I do recall snide remarks about how many grandmothers, aunts, and uncles George Romney had because the family had moved to Mexico to escape the federal government's opposition to polygamy.
Members of any group that is as stigmatized as Mormons were tend to feel quite apart from the rest of society. There are several ways those in a group outside the mainstream can cope with daily life. Some decide to stick to themselves to one degree or another. When they do mix, they tend to keep their opinions to themselves behind an agreeable mask. Those who don't isolate themselves often overcompensate in an attempt to show that they are no different from anyone else. Mitt Romney opted for almost the polar opposite of life in a Mormon population center when he moved to the Boston area. There he made a pot-load of money and adopted the pro-choice, anti-gun, big-government policies of the local political majority. Like so many other strangers in a strange land, he also seems to have put on a very big smile.
These are common coping mechanism for members of outsider groups. Our immigrant stereotypes are full of examples, from the rapid acquisition of wealth by Jews who immigrated from the impoverished East European Shtetls to the always-cheerful Chinese waiter with his broken English. Scholar Shelby Steele writes of the two masks blacks still wear when among whites -- cheerful minstrel or angry activist. Our literature and legends are also full of examples of those who tried so hard to fit in that they became objects of ridicule, pity, and even tragedy. Consider the Kennedys -- heroes to working-class Irish Catholics for becoming very rich and living like the wealthy WASPs, who sneered at them.
For many voters, the politics Romney adopted in Massachusetts, such as being pro-choice, now hangs around his neck like an entire flock of the ancient mariner's albatross, while the smile that seems permanently etched on his face makes everything he says seem phony. Indeed, the harder he tries to say he is just like us on the campaign trail, the more alien he often seems. Many have commented on the odd note his "I love this land. I love its Constitution." speech struck in South Carolina. It was language one would expect to hear from a first-generation American rather than a man whose father was also once candidate for the presidency. It is as if years of being a Mormon in Massachusetts has so habituated him to hiding parts of his real self that he no longer seems to have one. Instead of a human, there is a political terminator. It bleeds when you scratch the skin, but its heart is a computer chip programmed to fake sincerity.
Authenticity may be an overrated quality in a candidate, but at a minimum, either a candidate has to relate well with people or, as with the very cool Barack Obama, people have to want to relate to him. An inability to connect at all is a major flaw. To the extent that it can be made to look like cynicism or political calculation, this inability can be a fatal flaw. Underdog Obama used the charge of lack of political convictions quite effectively against Hillary Clinton four years ago.