Jacob Weisberg and the Mystical Art of Political Divination

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series of rebuttals to attacks made before RomneyExperience was born. For other RomneyExperience Rebuttals, see here.

Divination: (noun) The process of attempting to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge by occult or supernatural means.

The process of evaluating a presidential candidate is complex. Over the course of the extended campaign season, gallons of ink are spilled in assessing each candidate’s fit for the job. For all its gaping deficiencies, the current system of electing an American president does one thing quite well: it brings every tidbit of known and knowable information about each major candidate to the fore, allowing the public to interpret the data as it will. The public and press often err in their interpretations, but no one can ever say that there’s not enough information out there.

Given the glut of information on everything from candidates’ families to their hairstylists, their teenage jobs to their voting records, it is surprising to see the occasional commentator draw conclusions based not on the data, but upon random or targeted prejudices. That is, when so much information is available on a candidate, why choose to draw broad generalizations about his fit for the presidency based on your sense of smell instead?

This is apparently the approach favored by Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate Magazine. In December 2006, Weisberg fired one of the opening salvos in the war over Mitt Romney’s religion, and what remains one of the most retrograde attacks of the campaign. His message is simple: Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and Mormons believe in a con-man. Anyone who believes in con-men is clearly lacking in competency, and therefore unfit for the presidency. If you read Weisberg’s piece you’ll see that this summary truly isn’t an oversimplification- he’s really saying that.

Weisberg’s column is perhaps the best extant example of a mystical practice I call “divination.” In the political realm, divination is the attempt to assess a candidate’s character and competency based solely on their religious beliefs (i.e., their approach to the Divine), to the exclusion of all other relevant data. If you ever want to know something about Mitt Romney, look to what his religion indicates about your question, no matter what else you know about the guy. How to interpret Romney’s approach to the Middle East? Look to Mormon Doctrine. What does Romney say about marriage? Better cross-check it against the history of his polygamous ancestors. And then there’s the biggest example of all, courtesy of Weisberg: How can we tell if Mitt Romney is competent? See whether there’s any wacky beliefs in that religion of his. This is political analysis as palm reading.

This approach might be understandable if such evaluations were being made in a vacuum of information, but they clearly are not. Does Weisberg really want to know about Mitt Romney’s mental competency? Why not look at his career Harvard, then Bain Consulting, then Bain Capital, then the Salt Lake Olympics, then as Governor of Massachusetts? Does Weisberg truly worry that Romney is credulous to the point of being a danger to the country if elected? Why not research Romney’s business decisions and interview colleagues about his ability to divide truth from nonsense? Is there really a danger that Mormon doctrine would cloud Romney’s decision-making? Well, check the record, because if he’s got this tendency, it’s surely in there.

The problem is that the relevant facts– the actual history of Mitt Romney’s life– show that Weisberg’s fears could not be more baseless. If there is any candidate for the presidency that models competency, hard-nosed empiricism and savvy decision-making, it is Mitt Romney. But Weisberg cares not a whit for such real-world metrics. Regarding Mitt Romney, Weisberg wants to know only what he can divine from Romney’s Mormonism, nothing else.

The problems with this approach are too numerous to highlight, but two deserve mention. First, it’s just a stupid way to measure anyone. It will almost always lead you to an inaccurate result. If you believe that Mormons are a little crazy, by all means factor that in to your analysis, but if every single piece of verifiable evidence about a person suggests that he is not indeed crazy, but is actually a paragon of American accomplishment, your initial assumptions should probably not figure much in your conclusions. In other words, to those that continue to sum up Mitt Romney based on his Mormonism and nothing else, you are making a mistake by leaving out reams of other relevant data, and will certainly err in your assessments, as would be true in the analysis of any candidate based on only one data point.

Secondly, political divination is the height of thinly-veiled bigotry. It is a bad disguise for the belief that Mitt Romney is a Mormon and nothing else. His accomplishments as a businessman, father, and governor are meaningless. Only his Mormonism is relevant to the core of the man. If this does not appear at first blush to be bigotry, ask yourself how you’d feel upon hearing that Hillary can’t be trusted to remain objective and unemotional as president because she’s a woman, or that Obama would favor African countries over others in his foreign policy because he’s a black man. If we as a nation were to define Obama as a black man running for president, and view every one of his positions and acts as a candidate through the lens of his blackness, wouldn’t that be a horrible boxing in of a living, breathing, multi-dimensional human being? Would anyone stand for it? Why then should Romney’s religion be a primary consideration in assessing his political platforms or his competence? And no, race and gender are not different from religion in this instance: all three traits help make a person who they are, but do not come close to painting the entire picture of a personality. Whether it be a person’s race, sex, or religion, no character is formed only by membership in one demographic category, and thus no single category is sufficient to explain any person’s biography, abilities, or character. If Hillary can’t be summed up by her gender, Romney can’t be summed up by his religion. This is fundamental stuff.

But if divination is such an inaccurate and bigoted practice, why do people still rely on it? Because it’s one of the only ways to write a story about Romney and deal with the novelty of his religion, a shiny squeak-toy most journalists just can’t seem to stop shaking. Mormonism is a boon to the media in this race, because it gives them just the sensational angle and deep pool of quirky new facts to dress up their stories. And best of all, focusing on Romney’s faith, instead of his background or platform allows them to skip most of the research, and just write from the gut- a gut that in many cases is ultra-skeptical of all things religious from the get-go. Note how Weisberg includes all religions in his column, suggesting that his dismissal of Romney would apply to every believer, except that other religions don’t really believe their doctrines, having turned them into benign myths. Clearly this is a man who has made no attempt to understand religion at all, which explains why he remains so bemused by it.

Mitt Romney is not a Mormon running for president. He is a father, husband, entrepreneur, financier, executive, leader, governor, thinker, conservative, and Mormon, running for president. Weisberg and his ilk refuse to give him the dignity of all but one of those labels. Hopefully, when it comes to evaluating Mitt Romney and every other candidate for the country’s highest office, the rest of the world will decide they like actual information better than gazing into a crystal ball.

2 Responses to “Jacob Weisberg and the Mystical Art of Political Divination”

  1. RomneyExperience Says:

    […] Kinsley has raised the bar.  Starting out on the trail blazed by his former Slate colleague Jacob Weisberg, Kinsley has pulled out a blowtorch to slash and burn great swaths of new acreage.  Where Weisberg […]

  2. RomneyExperience Says:

    […] specifically invited R.E. readers to join in. As long-time readers of this site may know, Slate has not been particularly friendly to the rights of Mormons-running-for-president, so this invitation is a […]