I was pretty much focused on the speeches in Tampa last night, and less on the videos and other trappings, and so didn’t write about the overarching theme of “We Did Build That.” It was, as the New York Times’ Bill Keller noted, pretty odd to see a retort to something Barack Obama actually never said become the dominant theme of the convention dedicated to ousting him from power.
But the one honest thing about this theme and its power among conservatives is the righteous indignation it arouses. Wealthy people, and even some not-so-wealthy people often become furious at the suggestion that their “success” is not purely and simply a tribute to their moral superiority and hard work. The flip side of this calculation, of course, is that people who aren’t so successful are not so virtuous and/or are lazy. When Virtuous Republican Businessman was putting in that extra hour of labor, Lazy Democratic Looter was asleep, or having sex, or doing something else unvirtuous. Or so goes the mythology.
This identification of “success” (i.e., wealth) with virtue, ancient as it is, has always laughably defied common human experience. The hardest working people on earth are those who are literally working to keep from starving. Relatively few of them live in the United States to begin with, and those who do are rarely Republicans. And pride over one’s “success,” particularly if it is expressed via conspicuous wealth, has been the target of stern warnings in virtually every major religious tradition.
It has taken many decades of laborious revisionist work for the devout, scripturally literalist adherents of the faith whose God and Savior was quoted as saying, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” to become uninhibited enthusiasts for earthly success and wealth, and despisers of the “undeserving” poor. It’s the same revisionism, of course, that makes it possible for the Roman Catholic Vice Presidential Nominee of the Republican Party to fondly view Ayn Rand as an “intellectual influence,” instead of someone whose books any Christian should abjure like a Black Mass—someone whose fondest desire was to wipe both religion and altruism from the face of the earth.
But such thoughts do not seem to trouble the delegates in Tampa, for whom Paul Ryan is their true leader for decades to come, their very own Ronald Reagan.
I’ve spent a lot of my life around the non-college educated white voters who seem to be the only “swing voters” the GOP is concerned about at the moment, and while a lot of them do indeed tend to “kick down” and resent the “undeserving poor” they view as too lazy to work, they don’t automatically admire the very wealthy—their own bosses, for example—as paragons of virtue. So I suspect this whole “We Did Build That” theme is basically for the emotional benefit of the GOP base and its donors. It says a lot that at a National Convention their hurt feelings must be so lavishly propitiated. And it is about “hurt feelings,” as TNR’s Leon Wieseltier suggests in his savage takedown of Paul Ryan and his intellectual pretensions today:
It is no wonder that Ryan, and of course Romney, set out immediately to distort the president’s “you didn’t build that speech” in Roanoke, because in complicating the causes of economic achievement, and in giving a more correct picture of the conditions of entrepreneurial activity, Obama punctured the radical individualist mythology, the wild self-worship, at the heart of the conservative idea of capitalism.
“Self-worship” is an apt term for people who have all the material abundance anyone could hope for in this life, but still burn with resentment at the “lucky ducky” working poor who don’t have federal income tax liability, and are insulted at the very idea that they owe something back to their community. I hope they enjoyed their evening of self-congratulation last night. To mention another saying by Jesus Christ with respect to self-regarding “godly” folk: “They have received their reward in full.”
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