Political Animal


April 23, 2012 5:17 PM Nothing Succeeds Like Success

By Ed Kilgore

At Ten Miles Square, Michael Kinsley puts his finger on something that probably defines Mitt Romney’s true bond with a Republican Party that otherwise would just as soon toss him on the dustbin of history: the cult of Success, with its creed of identifying wealth and status with virtue, and any concern for equality or fairness with vice.

As Kinsley notes, Romney talks about his own success incessantly, both as a credential for national leadership and as a response to any and all criticism:

“If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they’d better vote for the other guy,” he says. “Because I’ve been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people…”
“I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”
Sure. Lovely. Let’s reward success. But the Republicans seem to think that success is self-defining. Anyone who has done well or was born well deserves what he or she has got, and maybe more, because these are society’s “job creators.”

Kinsley goes on to detail various ways in which “success” is determined by accidents of birth, not righteousness, and by luck, not pluck. Is someone remunerated for his or her work twice as much as they’d be in another country (or for that matter, in another time of history) twice as virtuous? Or as I often ask: Do people who get laid off during an economic downturn through no fault of their own become instantly less “worthy?”

No, of course, but it’s immensely comforting to the comfortable to believe not only that they have richly earned everything they’ve acquired, but that any dimunition of their wealth is an affront to morality that threatens all order and civilization. It’s a sense of entitlement far more powerful and pervasive than the much-denounced expectation of public benefits via a social safety net. And it helps justify indifference to the suffering of others—necessary, of course, to keep the virtue-machine running that is the only real alternative to anarchy—or far worse, the kind of resentment that leads people to express cold fury towards those with underwater mortgages or preexisting medical conditions. All other things being equal, I’d say resentment of other people’s failures is more inscrutable than resentment of other people’s success, since the latter have by definition received their reward and the former their punishment.

The cult of success is so central to conservative ideology in this country that it brokes little or no dissent, particularly in a Republican Party dependent on downscale white voters whose resentment of people poorer or darker or sicker than they are cannot be complicated by any doubt about the morality of markets. It’s no accident that the entire conservative commentariat came down on Newt Gingrich like a ton of bricks the moment he indulged in a producerist attack on Romney as a predatory capitalist. Start accepting fine distinctions like that, and the next thing you know you might be wondering if this banker or that oil executive is virtuous as well!

So Romney’s self-satisfaction and—yes, the word is unavoidable—self-righteousness is intergral to the world-view of the political movement he now hopes to lead to national power.

As Kinsley concludes:

I’m not ashamed to say I was successful,” Romney says. No one is asking him to be ashamed of his success. What he should be ashamed of is his complacency. It seems absurd to say so, but maybe it will take losing the presidency to teach him a little humility. If he wins, he’ll be really insufferable.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Jimo on April 23, 2012 5:21 PM:

    In sum,

    Born on third base, thinking he hit a homerun.

    (Not only discounting the role of luck to his success, but in fact overestimating the value of his achievement.)

  • Hedda Peraz on April 23, 2012 5:23 PM:

    Romney makes The Donald seem humble by comparison.

  • mikeyes on April 23, 2012 5:28 PM:

    US Grant is a good case study. Unsuccessful in business he became one of the most successful generals in our history ... and a failure as a President.

    Success is what it is and past performance doesn't, etc.

  • SecularAnimist on April 23, 2012 5:31 PM:

    Romney was extraordinarily successful at enriching himself by screwing thousands of people out of their livelihoods and running numerous companies into the ground.

    Romney never "created jobs". Romney never created anything. He enriched himself by wrecking things that other people had created.

    Which makes him the perfect Republican politician, because the ideal of the modern Republican Party is sociopathic kleptocracy.

  • RepublicanPointOfView on April 23, 2012 5:32 PM:

    Mitt Romney was successfully born with the right DNA and is entitled to subservience. All of you jealous liberals should have made a better selection of DNA to be born with!

  • T2 on April 23, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Romney is much like George W. Bush. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which would be replaced by a foot at adulthood. And a president Romney would govern like W, doing what he's told by people like his Daddy, a Rich White Guy with Connections. Spoiled Brats with jerkoff tempers, always trying to prove their worth to their Daddies.
    They could not be more different than Obama.

  • Wapiti on April 23, 2012 5:41 PM:

    EK: Or as I often ask: Do people who get laid off during an economic downturn through no fault of their own become instantly less “worthy?”

    Clearly, if Mitt Romney's great value to the world is because of his work as a great capitalist at Bain, then the logical extension of his philosophy is that all the people who were suddenly out of a job because of Bain... well, they were worthless scumbags who got what they deserved.

  • mike on April 23, 2012 5:44 PM:

    Well, let's see. He grew up in the into the 99.99th percentile, and made it all the way to the 99.999th percentile.

    By contrast, Obama grew up in the 80th percentile, and made it to the 99.99th percentile.

    Nope, I don't find that either of these stories inspire me more than their stands on the issues.

    In this case Romney is clearly superior, in that he has stood in all positions on most issues.

  • Texas Aggie on April 23, 2012 5:46 PM:

    What he should be ashamed of is HOW he was successful. Throwing people out of work. Charging "management fees" to companies he's bought for managing them out of business. Destroying businesses and people's lives. In essence, using his power to destroy other people's lives is how he achieved his "success." Morally speaking, it is no different from what Kenny Boy did at Enron. But the right wing is still upset that Kenny Boy didn't get away with his dishonesty.

    The right wing isn't intellectually capable of making the distinction between getting rich by benefitting society and getting rich by harming society. They don't make the distinction, so as far as they're concerned, Chapo Guzman, one of the richest narcos ever, is a success and should be lauded.

  • jjm on April 23, 2012 5:57 PM:

    @Wapiti: You SAID IT!

    But really, the deep, fundamental alteration in our idea of value, human and other, proceeds directly from the financialization of everything.

    Knowledge? Who cares unless it sells something?

    Science? Who cares if it stops us from selling something?

    Wisdom? Don't make us laugh!

    Ethics? Something to be skirted as much as possible.

    Skills and know-how in business and labor? Who cares? The only thing that counts is a company's stock price and we know how to manipulate that if they cross us...

    And yes? the value of poor people? Don't make me laugh! No one who is penniless has any value, human or otherwise, because YOU ARE WHAT YOUR BOTTOM LINE IS.

  • barkleyg on April 23, 2012 6:05 PM:

    "Kinsley goes on to detail various ways in which “success” is determined by accidents of birth, not righteousness, and by luck, not pluck. "

    I'm thinking that Kinsley is talking about the BUSH/CHENEY Monarchy! Cheney is considered a "success", yet he has the lack of morals that the DEVIL himself would envy. Bush happened to pick the Right parents and grandparents( Prescott Bush, the last OFFICIAL NAZI Banker in America)where bootstraps are a lot easier to pick up, especially if you have the intelligence of the boot straps themselves!

  • pluege on April 23, 2012 6:09 PM:

    the arrogance of wealth:

    thinking one is superior by virtue of possession of excessive wealth, usually acquired through luck of birth or happenstance.

  • Mitt's Magic Underpants on April 23, 2012 6:25 PM:

    Anyone who thinks ol' Mittens had "equality of opportunity" with those born in the lower 50% are simply too dishonest to be taken seriously.

  • JD on April 23, 2012 6:43 PM:

    "If he wins, he’ll be really insufferable."

    The mind reels.

  • karen marie on April 23, 2012 7:10 PM:

    Mother of FSM, didn't we have enough of the "MBA" presidency between 2000 and 2008?

    It's hard to believe they're going with that angle.

  • c00p on April 23, 2012 10:27 PM:

    We might have been better off as a country, after all, if our founding fathers had created a titled aristocracy. It might have made it a little bit easier to keep our eyes on our "betters" and maybe a little easier to confine the damage they do to limited spheres. After all, the House of Lords in the UK matters almost not at all.

  • Shane Taylor on April 24, 2012 8:54 AM:

    The irony is how easily this virtuous order can devolve into anarchy. Who is John Galt? He is the egoist who believes that every bit of wealth he commands is an expression of his sovereign genius. Diminish his wealth, and you diminish him. In this conceit, Galt is not so different from the German anarchist Max Stirner.


  • Marc Levine on April 24, 2012 12:42 PM:

    Mr. Kilgore, you're an excellent writer. I not only admire your political knowledge and judgment, but also greatly appreciate your abilities as a wordslinger.

    However, the expression is "brooks," not "brokes," as in, "it brooks little or no dissent."

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my inner schoolmarm.

  • SweetM on April 24, 2012 1:46 PM:

    I can't understand why ThinkProgress and even Rachael Maddow can't connect what was written by the guy who actually lived and belonged to the religious cult called C Street. The belief that when you are elected into politics or become a successful businessman/woman because God made you special or better than those who don't become successful is exactly what is taught at C Street. They are being taught this crap. It is their religion. This is what they want to hear. It makes them feel empowered to crap on us because we aren't as good or blessed as them.

    My current governor Sam Brownback is the epitome of this philosopy. He is making discrimination against gays legal ( called the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom act) and taking away from the poor and disabled to give to the coporations and Kochs. He won't sign your bill unless you vote for what he wants. I do wish the media would begin looking at Kansas politics, it too is horrify. I guess everybody assumes that Kansas is always crazy but not our crazy is on steroids!