Let me start by saying that I think rhetoric matters only at the margin in campaigns. Nevertheless, I think it is valuable to consider it as a reflection of the values that we as a society choose to organize ourselves around. And I just wanted to jot down a thought I had during the election of 2012.
One thing I was struck by, when listening to Mitt Romney this election season, was the way in which Romney chose to be mute to large segments of the population. I’m not speaking here about things like the infamous 47% tape or his attitude towards Hispanics, though each are extreme examples of this. I’m speaking of the way in which he essentially ceded the rhetorical ground on large and important issues that mattered personally to many voters. Romney, by choice, essentially chose to ignore the poor other than platitudes of rising tides lifting all boats. Apparently Paul Ryan wanted to campaign in inner cities to talk about how the Republican platform offered more to the poor, but Romney’s staff shut him down. I think Ryan had the right idea here – all too often, Romney seemed to basically ignore the actual concerns of a lot of his voting base in favor of sticking to Republican tropes. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Republican obsession with entrepreneurialism this electoral season.
Romney’s answer to all problems was entrepreneurialism. Obama’s (alleged) tax increases didn’t hurt the economy, they hurt the entrepreneurs who powered the American economy. When he addressed a high-schooler in the second debate, he said that he wanted to create a climate where that high-schooler could start their own business after college graduation. Every pronouncement of his economic policy goals was couched in terms of making things better for small business. I understand the rationale for this – Republicans would rather discuss “small business” and “job creators” than “big business” and “rich people”, and I’m sure it focus-groups well. But in terms of actually listening to it, as a non-Republican, it sounds quite off. Because most people don’t want to be an entrepreneur.
Starting a business is too hard for most people. Most people don’t want to risk their savings, and health, and family life, in order to start a business that will statistically flame out within the first 18 months. Those who do, who take the risk upon themselves, are people that we rightly accord respect in our society. They are the dreamers, the poets, the madmen, and so on according to some stupid Jack Kerouac quote that hipsters put on their refrigerators. But most people don’t want that. They want a stable job and a paycheck and family and good health. The wild risk of starting your own business appalls the vast majority of normal people, which is exactly why we venerate those who do so and make it big. To the vast majority of Americans who aim to draw a paycheck and not have to worry about the risks, peaks, and valleys of capitalism, what did Romney have to say?
Many voted for him anyway, because party identity and economic conditions matter a whole hell of a lot than the noises than politicians make on the stump. But Romney essentially wrote off the economic aspirations of the regular person, and I do find it hard to believe that didn’t hurt him somehow.