Americans pride themselves on being self-reliant. In the eyes of many, there’s nothing better than a self-made man. (Somehow self-made women don’t have the same status). Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is perhaps the archetypal American rags-to-riches story. Andrew Carnegie is the Gilded Age example. The myth is so entrenched that President Obama couldn’t express a simple truth without creating a faux or Fox controversy (but then I repeat myself) over the following words:
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
BMGer JohnD raised the issue here, and Romney has been trying to capitalize on the controversy, but he’s having a hard time, factually speaking.
As ABC News’ Jake Tapper reported Monday, the star of a recent Romney ad hitting Obama over “you didn’t build that” had received millions in government loans and contracts. Romney stopped in Costa Mesa, California Monday to meet with a “roundtable” of small business leaders, held in front of a sign that says “We did build it!”
Naturally, it turned out that at least two of the companies represented—Endural LLC and Philatron Wire and Cable—had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in government contracts. When Romney visited the Boston’s historic black neighborhood of Roxbury last week, Romney touted an auto repair shop, declaring that “This is not the result of government…This is the result of people who take risks, who have dreams, who build for themselves and for their families.” Except it turned out that the auto repair shop guy started out without any funds and was only able to build his business because of a bond issed by the local government.
The rising star of movement conservatism has turned into a black hole of ideology where the light of reality is quickly extinguished. What we get these days are the fragments of every belief that has driven the Republican Party for the last 30 years–the racism, the nativism, the voter suppression–supported by “facts” that can’t survive more than a nanosecond. Whatever intellectual value movement conservatism had to offer, it is gone now. Rhetorically, the GOP is grasping at straws.
It’s hard to say if a more liberal point of view will fill the vacuum, but that’s what President Obama is banking on when he said, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.” He’s channeling an idea that’s was articulated years ago by economist Jared Bernstein, Vice President Biden’s economic advisor: we’re all in this together. Acronymized as WITT, Bernstein identified it as the Democratic ideal, though not necessarily one that the Democratic Party has always lived up to. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education, all are part of the WITT philosophy. We share the burden, and we share the benefits.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, and at the moment, the Romney campaign, has doubled down on what Bernstein calls You’re On Your Own (YOYO) ideology:
One central goal of the YOYO movement is to continue and even accelerate the trend toward shifting economic risks from the government and the nation’s corporations onto individuals and their families. You can see this intention beneath the surface of almost every recent conservative initiative: Social Security privatization, personal accounts for health care (the so-called Health Savings Accounts), attacks on labor market regulations, and the perpetual crusade to slash the government’s revenue through regressive tax cuts—a strategy explicitly tagged as “starving the beast”—and block the government from playing a useful role in our economic lives.
The idea that small business owners make it on their own is YOYO mythology. It taps into the archetype of America as the land of opportunity where hard work is all you need to succeed. Personally, I think business success is commendable. But those who succeed at business do so through a combination of talent, luck, the business environment, and hard work. They don’t do it all by themselves. Every successful business person carries an invisible backpack of unseen, unmeasured benefits that enables success from governmental loans and transportation infrastructure to a stable society with a strong, productive economy (in spite of the current depression). Barack Obama may be the most conservative Democratic president of the 20th century, but his recent comments cast his campaign in a very traditional, liberal mold. That he’s even trying to do so suggests that the tide in America is turning.