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Romney and the Klan: A Cautionary Tale

Romney and the Klan: A Cautionary Tale

By Carl M. Cannon - December 30, 2011


James Monroe had a foreign policy problem -- several, actually -- but he devised a solution that solved them all. The president unveiled this masterstroke in his 1823 State of the Union message to Congress. In time, his fiat would become known as the Monroe Doctrine, and was often summed up in four words: “America is for Americans.”

Since Monroe’s administration was sticking up for the Latin American liberators busily shedding the yoke of Spain, this sentiment met with appreciation in the southern hemisphere. Times change such perceptions, however, and in this case with some reason: Theodore Roosevelt’s “codicil” to the Monroe Doctrine seemed to invite U.S. interference in the affairs of our neighbors to the south -- and 188 years later, the mere mention of Monroe can send Latin America leaders like Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega into a state of apoplexy

“The Monroe Doctrine was imposed here: America for Americans, the Yankees,” Chavez complained earlier this month while kicking off a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States confab in Venezuela. “They imposed their will during 200 years, but that’s enough!”

Ortega agreed with his host. “Today,” Nicaragua’s president told Venezuelan reporters after deplaning in Caracas, “we are going to give a death sentence to the Monroe Doctrine.”

But now, in the context of a U.S. presidential election, it’s Mitt Romney’s problem, this supposed Yanqui attitude of superiority. Romney’s apparent sin has been to go around saying he doesn’t want America like becoming Europe -- the purported fantasy of various Democrats, including the man currently occupying the Oval Office.

“We have on one side a president who wants to transform America into a European-style nation,” Romney said in Iowa recently. “And you have on other hand someone like myself that wants to turn around America and keep America America with the principals that made us the greatest nation on Earth.”

James Monroe and Simón Bolivar would probably have agreed with this sentiment -- they didn’t think too highly of European society either -- but these days it’s not enough for Romney’s critics to accuse the former Massachusetts governor of being too retro or having a tin ear. Instead they felt compelled to call Romney a racist and a xenophobe, and a plagiarist to boot. Whose material is he stealing? Not Monroe’s – oh no, indeed -- Romney is said to have channeled the Ku Klux Klan. This stuff makes it into the newspapers (at least the online version), is repeated on television -- you don’t have to guess which network -- and is all over the Internet, which, of course, is where this witless slander started.

And therein resides part of the problem with modern American politics.

The advent of the Internet -- and the “New Media” it gave rise to -- has democratized political discourse in this country. For the most part, this has been a good thing. It has helped expand the pool of available voices, made establishment journalism more accountable, and empowered those without deep pockets to be part of the civic conversation. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

At the same time, while undermining a business model that had been in place for more than 200 years, the New Media threaten to sweep aside what was best about the Old Media. Checking facts, giving both sides of a story, making sure quotes are accurate, providing honest historical context, striving for fairness -- these aren’t fusty niceties, they are the essence of reliable human communication. Truthful discourse isn’t possible without them.

The latest example -- the comparison of Mitt Romney to the Ku Klux Klan -- is an instructive case study in how the media can stumble while trying to reconcile new market demands with time-honored values. Our tale begins on Monday, Dec. 12, when a handful of bloggers whose politics are left-leaning and reliably partisan homed in on a Romney quote, uttered the week before in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“Keep America American,” Romney was quoted as saying. The line, plucked out of a lengthier quote in a Dec. 9 Los Angeles Times story by political correspondent Seema Mehta, was passed around by liberal writers and activists -- who then lashed out at Romney.

Steve Benen of Washington Monthly opened his Dec. 12 column with this line and a link to the LAT story. “Maybe it’s just me, but I find phrases like ‘keep America American’ kind of creepy,” he wrote. “Take Mitt Romney’s stump-speech rhetoric, for example.”

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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