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February 03, 2014 1:23 PM What? They Didn’t Built That?

By Ed Kilgore

One of the most amusing subtexts of what is appearing to be a disastrous House GOP retreat last week is that Eric Cantor spent time trying to tutor his troops on how to talk to people who (a) don’t own their own businesses, and (b) don’t view themselves as second-class citizens for working for somebody else.

It’s true that Cantor has been pushing the idea of developing a message of practical problem-solving for middle-class Americans for some time now. But it’s increasingly obvious this runs against the grain of his party’s strong tendency to view “job-creators” as they only people that matter in this country. On Friday Byron York wrote about Cantor’s struggle to get House GOP solons to smell the coffee:

“Ninety percent of Americans work for someone else,” Cantor said, according to a source in the room. “Most of them not only will never own their own business, for most of them that isn’t their dream. Their dream is to have a good job, with an income that will allow them to support their family.”
“We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,” Cantor continued, according to the source, “which is why we will present and pass our plans to relieve the middle class squeeze.”
What was extraordinary about that portion of Cantor’s presentation was not that it was out of place — it was entirely on-target for a political party hoping to win elections in 2014 — but that it came six years into the economic downturn, and decades into a protracted decline in middle-class standards of living. Could it actually have taken Republicans that long to realize they should address such problems, especially when Democrats have made huge gains appealing directly to middle-class voters?
Apparently, yes. And even now, not all House Republicans are entirely on board. “It’s something that’s been growing and taking time for members to get comfortable with,” says a House GOP aide, “because they did spend the last decade talking about small business owners.”

The small-business obsession of the GOP is what has passed for economic populism in their ranks—a chance to identify a constituency outside the plutocracy, one that could be liberated to thrive if the Big Government/Big Business “crony capitalist” conspiracy of the Obama administration could be broken. That Big Business and not small businesses would be the primary beneficiary of their actual agenda was one problem. The other was simply that more entrepreneurship wouldn’t tangibly benefit anything like a majority of the country in anything other than the most indirect way.

The deeper problem is that most conservatives simply do not believe wage-slaves contribute anything that matters to the economy. And this, as Paul Waldman notes at the Prospect today, reflects and reinforces a moral valuation of Americans as divided into producers and parasites:

We all believe that some people are just more important than others, and for conservatives, no one is more important than business owners. Remember how gleeful they were when President Obama said “you didn’t build that” when discussing businesses during the 2012 campaign? Sure, he was taken out of context (he was talking about roads and bridges, not the businesses themselves), but Republicans genuinely believed they had found the silver bullet that would take him down. He had disrespected business owners! Surely all America would be enraged and cast him from office! They made it the theme of their convention. They printed banners. They wrote songs about it. And they were bewildered when it didn’t work….
Just like those members of Congress listening incredulously to Eric Cantor, they couldn’t grasp that the whole country didn’t share their moral hierarchy. After years of worrying primarily about the concerns of people who own businesses, they’ve elevated to gospel truth that the businessman’s virtue is unassailable, that his rewards are justly earned, and that no effort should be spared to remove all obstacles from his path. When it comes down to a choice between, say, a business owner who would like to pay his employees as little as possible and a group of employees who’d like to be paid more, conservatives don’t just see the choice as a simple one, they can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t agree.

Truth is, a lot of Americans who have worked for small businesses don’t necessarily see their proprietors as the salt of the earth and the sum of all virtue. Some are precisely the kind of bosses who resist minimal requirements for pay, workplace safety, non-discrimination, and all the other busybody liberal impositions on private property rights.

But if your mindset is such that the only alternative to deification (Waldman’s term) of big business is deification of small business, it will be difficult for you to develop an agenda attractive to people who don’t own businesses at all, particularly if that requires acknowledgement that labor contributes as much to the success of enterprises as capital. Abandon that rampart, and before you know it, you’re acknowledging the legitimacy not only of government regulation of entrepreneurs on behalf of their empoyees, but of unions! And that way lies socialism, obviously.

So Cantor may be laying out an impossible objective for Republicans in appealing to people they can’t quite respect as the source of anything good other than votes.

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.

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