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Op-Ed: Mitt Romney as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

In the aftermath of Sandy, it’s time to reevaluate what it means to be dependent on government. (Guernica Magazine, 11/1/12)

EXCERPT: Romney argues that dependency makes Americans “victims” because they believe “that government has a responsibility to care for them,” contrasting their dependency with his independence, not merely as a wealthy private citizen but as a political candidate. In declaring his independence from American voters, Romney is in fact speaking in a classical tradition of warrior-leaders like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The play Coriolanus was based on the life of a real Roman leader who had such success in battle that he is re-named for the city of Corioles which he had violently destroyed. Coriolanus returns to Rome, where he decides to run for Senate. But when he refuses to pander to the people to win their votes the Romans run him out of town (with a little egging-on by Coriolanus’ rivals). As Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt writes in his recent book Shakespeare’s Freedom : “It is Coriolanus’ proud refusal to participate in the popular rites of power—specifically the humble soliciting of votes and hence acknowledgement of dependency—that has lead to his exile” (107).

What is particularly troubling about Romney’s case is that the mutual dependency voters take for granted is for him a shameful sense of entitlement.

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows what happens when a leader rejects the democratic contract between the voters and the government. And though Shakespeare himself wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of governance by the masses, Coriolanus demonstrates that it is mutual dependency, at least as much as freedom and independence, that defines democratic values. America’s tripartite system of government ensures that our leaders are necessarily dependent both on each other and on the voters who elect them. As legal scholar Lawrence Lessig wrote in a recent Boston Review article “Democracy After Citizens United,” “The framers intended Congress to be ‘dependent upon the People alone.’ But the private funding of public campaigns has bred within Congress a second, and conflicting, dependency.” [More at Guernica.com]

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