Political Animal


September 05, 2012 11:08 AM Sprints and Relays

By Ed Kilgore

While every observer noted that yesterday’s first Democratic Convention session featured many lusty attacks on Romney, Ryan and the Republican Party, some of the messaging was a bit more subtle than you might think from listening to the shouts from the podium and cheers from the audience. If “We Built It!” was the slogan of the GOP Convention’s first day, the Democratic response was not the expected “No You Didn’t!” but “You Finished It After Others Started It.” There was a distinct emphasis on the idea that the individual success celebrated in Tampa depends not just on public support (e.g., infrastructure, government-backed loans and tax subsidies, etc.) but on past public efforts to open up opportunity to all.

This theme was most prominent in San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s super-prime-time “keynote” address. He spent a great deal of time discussing the multi-generational platform of progress on which he had been able to reach the highest rungs of individual achievement. And then he offered a very pointed (if mixed) metaphor: “The American Dream is not a sprint or a marathon; it’s a relay.”

In his brilliant book Nixon Agonistes, published more than forty years ago, Gary Wills offered a long discussion of the American addiction to foot-race metaphors for economic life. Conservatives, he observed, tend to concentrate on the purity of competition, while liberals stress a “fair start” in the race of life. Nobody much doubts the basic scheme of individual success, at least ideally, as reflecting individual worth, but there is significant variation in how much public intervention is necessary to establish “fair” rules for the race.

By introducing the “relay” metaphor, Castro relies on the traditional “liberal” idea that individuals do not begin the “race” on an equal footing. But the concept of beginning where one’s forebears have handed off “the baton” produces an experientially plausible way to talk about the privileges of elites and the critical importance of publicly guaranteed “equal opportunity.”

The “relay” metaphor is particularly powerful for minority folk who have a keen awareness of how recently and with what great sacrifices basic civil rights were earned. And I’d bet it’s especially strong among Latinos, whose culture combines a powerful aspirational element with an understanding of the intergenerational nature of “success.” In Tampa, the many speeches touting the “immigrant experience” seemed to paint a picture of people fleeing despotic societies, making it possible for their children to achieve success almost instantly in America’s atmosphere of freedom, by the work of their own hands. I do not imagine this is a particularly common experience for first- and second-generation Americans.

I don’t blame Republicans for trying to adapt their radically individualist economic philosophy to the sentiments of demographic groups who take a dim view of the GOP thanks to its hostility to immigration reform and to “equal opportunity” efforts generally. But it’s likely less appealing than the kind of more communitarian understanding of individual achievement Castro displayed. What’s unclear is how non-minority Americans of modest means view the question. Does your average non-college-educated white voter struggling to hang on to middle-class status identify emotionally with those job-creating entrepreneurs who were the toast of Tampa? Do they consider equal opportunity measures and the social safety net itself a “handout?” Or do they retain a sense that they needed a “hand up” to get where they are, and now need it to stay there?

It is, as I’ve suggested, a very old debate in American politics, and how it plays out on the margins of the electorate could have a big impact on the outcome.

UPDATE: David Atkins at Hullabaloo offers an eloquent dissent against the “equal opportunity” rap and the whole “meritocracy” meme, much as Gary Wills did back in 1970.

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.


  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on September 05, 2012 11:55 AM:

    The DNC speakers definitely highlighted the patriotism of togetherness last night. Which was in stark contrast to the smug, self-congratulatory long-stroking the GOP was doing last week.

    Which actually got me to a-wonderin', is there a modern state without significant public investment that has as much wealth and freedom as the USA without being a banana republic or rogue state? Maybe success is possible in the US because of all this public investment and even regulations. The GOP immigrant success stories might want to talk about how they didn't "need no handout" when they came here, but they probably couldn't have done so much in a country without the pre-existing infrastructure. They could have set up shop in any regulation-free country, say Somalia...

  • Bo on September 05, 2012 12:07 PM:

    This morning, we already have news about The MittWit's counter-offensive to yesterday's successful kick-off to the Democratic Convention.
    Drum-roll, please . . . Willard has formed a Black Leadership Council! To be led by Allen West and Tim Scott, no less!
    In the coming days, I expect to hear that much more diversity of opinion is being added to this council by the likes of Herman Cain, Artur Davis, Alan Keyes, Thomas Sowell and Clancy Thomas.
    [sarcasm intended]

  • Mad_nVt on September 05, 2012 12:21 PM:

    "It's a relay."

    "It takes a village. . . . . ."

    In fact, that's the way the world works, whether your "village" is your village or it's the corporate culture that one might thrive in.

    Keep to that theme, because in the end reality is where it's at. It make take time to build the theme further, but it will resonate.

  • c u n d gulag on September 05, 2012 12:22 PM:

    I love that "relay" analogy that Castro used.

    I grew up in Queens, NYC, and my grade school classes had Orientals, Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, among others.

    English not my first language, so I also needed teachers, neighbors, and friends to learn to speak and write English, since we spoke Russian and Ukrainian at home.

    I grew up in a mosaic. Or, rather, a crazy quilt, sewn together by many hands, from many different cultures.

    To many Conservatives grew up fearful of crazy quilts, since they grew-up in some version of a Noman Rockwell painting, morphed together with the Jesus-lighting from a Thomas Kinkade work - or think they did.

    Maybe hearing the backgrounds of Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio, and the stories of the Democratic politicians stories, they might see the light.

    Yeah, I know - not probable.
    Damn near impossible.
    But a man can dream, can't he?

  • TomParmenter on September 05, 2012 3:48 PM:

    Garry Wills notwithstanding, the track metaphors also make it handy to throw in lots of references to marathons.

    Connoisseurs of BS had no difficulty in catching the whiff that came out Ryan's initial statement of a "2 hour and 50-something" marathon. And his latest explanation went for piled-higher-and-deeper, as the Huffington headline had it:

    Paul Ryan Explains Marathon Time Snafu: I Made Up What I Thought Was 'An Ordinary Time'

  • huckster on September 05, 2012 4:25 PM:

    Seems to me the whole point of the evening was to portray the speakers as people who stood on the shoulders of others. Regardless of Mr. Atkin's hand-wringing, fair-play and opportunity are the cornerstones of the American ethos. The fact that one of the major political parties chooses to embrace that ethos and seamlessly weave in direct government action as a partner in that journey is a welcome sight.

  • Doug on September 05, 2012 6:22 PM:

    I read Atkins' piece and it seems to me that he's putting the cart before the horse.
    Unless and until you have equal opportunity, you'll never have a real meritocracy; too many people simply won't have the access to what is needed for them to develop their abilities.
    Worrying about the conditions of employment or how such conditions affect family/social life are useless if one can't get that job in the first place.

  • Big River Bandido on September 05, 2012 9:49 PM:

    One of the beauties of the "relay" metaphor is that unlike a sprint or marathon (which are individual contests), the relay is a collaborative effort. The use of the metaphor is a direct rebuke of the John Galt Syndrome.