It has always seemed to me that a core principle of Anglo-American conservatism has always been personal responsibility. We are all human and we all screw up all the time – but taking responsibility for both good and bad decisions is a prerequisite for democratic accountability in a free society. George W Bush famously summarized the GOP's current view of such accountability and responsibility by saying that in eight years, he had only one accountability moment – and that was the 2004 election. The authorization of a war on empirically false grounds, the resort to illegal torture, the tens of thousands of civilian deaths from the Iraq occupation: none of this was or is Bush's responsibility, according to the GOP. Bush even made a joke about the WMDs at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
This flight from responsibility is also, alas, baked deep in today's one percent, and marks them as very different from their wealthy predecessors in the American elite for much of the last century. The bankers whose recklessness precipitated our current recession see no reason to take responsibility for the misery their gambling and greed bestowed on so many others. Indeed, they shamelessly lobby to remove any constraints on their reckless ways, continue to gamble with glee (see JP Morgan), and continue to hand themselves bonuses and salaries out of any proportion to the benefits they bring to society as a whole.
And the financial elite is mirrored by the political elite. Those directly involved with or openly supportive of war crimes under Bush and Cheney – far from being held accountable – were given op-ed columns at the Washington Post and sinecures at AEI. A vice-president who openly boasted of torturing prisoners just held a fundraiser for the current nominee. No one in the cabinet responsible for Abu Ghraib resigned. The Republicans refuse to take any responsibility for the massive debt we accumulated since 2000 and have, indeed, tried to shift the entire responsibility onto Obama's shoulders.
Mitt Romney wants to take credit for all the successes at Bain while he was CEO, but also refuses to take responsibility for the actions of his own company which was still employing him and paying him a six figure salary. In fact even to ask a simple question as to whether he was CEO and therefore whether his testimony in 2002 was perjurious is to provoke Romney into a harrumph that included the words "disgusting".
The reason America's elite finds itself under so much criticism is not that they are elites. It is that they have become self-serving, accountability-free elites. Romney's pique that he could even be challenged to take responsibility for a company of which he was legally CEO is a perfect symbol of this abdication of responsibility. Think of the contrast with his father – a man who actually ran an industrial business well, who expressed solidarity with the civil rights movement when so many didn't, released twelve years of tax returns to prove he wasn't gaming anything, and invited reporters in for a Sunday service at his local LDS church.
George Romney clearly felt that with great wealth comes great responsibility and accountability. Mitt is fine with the wealth part; just not the responsibility and accountability. Which is a pretty good summary of what has gone wrong with American conservatism today.