Who Is This 'We' That You Speak Of?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Today, I offer a simple observation: One of the themes at the Republican convention this week -- "We Built It" -- is (almost surely unintentionally) deeply self-revealing.

For those of you who might somehow have missed it, the right-wing universe went nuts a few weeks ago when President Obama said the following: "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. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together." (There is actually additional pertinent material in that part of the speech, but this selection does the broader point justice.)

Four words, "you didn't build that," led to the usual echo-chamber denunciations, claiming (again) that Obama hates capitalism and all that is right with America. More than being just a one-week talking point, however, the manufactured outrage over Obama's comments has actually become the focal point of the Republican convention. This is because, apparently, it is simply unacceptable to tell American businesspeople -- I'm sorry, the "job creators" -- that they are not the independent heroes that they evidently think they are. Pointing out that "when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together," is now the equivalent of imposing 5-year plans on collective farms. I mean, he did not even forget to credit "our individual initiative" -- and he put it first, to boot!

In an otherwise excellent column in the Times yesterday, Nicholas Kristof argued that Obama had made the point "inelegantly," and he pointed to a more forceful version of the argument from Elizabeth Warren. Yet there was nothing inelegant about what Obama said. One could have added the fifth word "alone," I suppose, but that was abundantly clear from the context. One of the defenses of Obama (from, among others, Paul Krugman) has been that he was supposedly referring to his previous sentence, meaning that he was only saying that businesspeople did not build roads and bridges. This strikes me as a wholly unnecessary narrowing of Obama's point. He was not just talking about roads and bridges. He was talking about, as he put it in the previous sentence, "this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive." Where is the hating America part?

What is especially odd about this is that the basic point -- that this is a society, not anarchy -- is so unremarkable. Obama was referring to nothing more than the fundamental fact that because economic transactions are predicated on a legal system to enforce contracts and all that, which requires a government, the government is a necessary condition for a modern (or even, except in the extreme case, a pre-modern) economy to exist.

Yet this is evidently shocking news to right-wingers. A conservative journalist, writing for The Atlantic, recently became tied up in knots trying to explain why Obama's statement was ... just ... so ... awful. His confusion is almost endearing, and readers with time on their hands might enjoy trying to unravel his many errors. Even so, the author actually stumbles into stating the basic point correctly, saying: "Obama believes that government is the pre-existing condition for the creation of prosperity." What he cannot get his head around is that this is not just something that Barack Obama believes, but that it is a fact about the world. Of course government is the precondition. Without it, you cannot have economic prosperity. (You can have, at most, some gang-like enforcement of rudimentary trades. But without government, nothing remotely resembling prosperity is possible.) There are, as Obama also acknowledged, other necessary conditions, but the precondition of economic prosperity is the rule of law, and therefore government (and other people).

Perhaps it is not so shocking that there was a Republican freak-out about this innocuous statement. When Obama is accused by his opponent in this election (not, that is, by some Republican back-bencher, or some no-name blogger) of "apologizing for America," without any evidence that he has ever done so, we know that we are living in a world where there need not be any connection between facts and outrage.

As a friend pointed out to me recently, however, the particular wording of the Republicans' emphatic (and endlessly repeated) response contradicts their own outrage. "We built it" is exactly, after all, what Obama said. "We built them" could at least be defended as collectively taking credit for creating all of the businesses in the country, while still implying that each business was built by that business's owner and by nobody else. But we built it? Again, that is what Obama said. More than one person contributed to the success of every business, and we Americans should be happy that we have a government and society that makes such prosperity possible.

There is, however, at least one other possible way to interpret the Republicans' new slogan: They are finally admitting who they are, and whom they represent. When they say "We built it," they mean specifically to exclude everyone else whom President Obama included as deserving part of the group credit for the success of American capitalism. Workers? Forget it. Teachers? Are you kidding? Police officers? Not any more. Courts (and thus lawyers)? Horrors! If the collective "we" is meant to exclude all of the people who are part of the modern economy, who is included? The backers of the modern Republican Party, of course.

In other words, the 2012 Republican convention marks the time when Republicans simply admitted that "We are the 1%" -- nothing more, although probably a lot less. We wealthy people did it, and the rest of you can go cry about it. Not exactly a strategy for winning elections. Luckily for them, they can buy a lot of advertising to describe how well they prevented the enactment of any policies to help the economy recover.