The Republican National Convention is almost a week behind us now, which is roughly a millennium in the media-cycle. During this empty-chair obsessed stretch of time, I’ve been waiting for a critical analysis of the RNC motto which was draped from every wall and leaping from every spokesperson’s mouth: We Built It. Sure, every news station had something to say about how this rally cry was in defiance of Obama’s oft misquoted speech. There has been plenty of punditry and comedic blowback with regards to the manufacturing of gaffes. But, even if we grant the false characterization of Obama’s sentiment from the point of view of the Republican marketing force, we still don’t see a justification of the motto from the RNC. In fact, I’ll argue that “We Built It” is yet another indication of the immoral tenets of faith that are necessary to maintain the conservative position in contemporary politics.
Who is the “We” of the slogan? If you asked any attendee at the RNC I’m sure they would consider themselves to be included in that “We.” They would say that it is any hardworking American citizen or something to that effect. I can’t help but feel that the party leaders don’t just mean hardworking American citizens built whatever that is. If that were the case, it would be no different than what Obama said. Surely government workers, people who erect the bridges and pave the roads of President Obama’s speech, work just as hard as anyone in the private sector. No, the RNC slogan would have to be more narrowly specified in order to distance itself from even partially embracing big government. So again, who exactly is the We? It seems to me that they are referring to the people that became successful without the guiding hand of the government. The only people the Republicans value; the only value Republicanism demands is entrepreneurship. Free market prowess and endowment. To be sure, this is a valuable value indeed, but is it so paramount that it trumps the needs of all Republicans, including the unsuccessful ones? What does this say about the nominees of the GOP and what kind of reverence they demand of their loyal party members who may not be able to meet their expectations? Is it possible to be an unsuccessful Republican? Is it possible to work for the big government bureaucracy and vote Republican? Of course it is! So then why does this slogan become so appealing?
Perhaps it appeals to our vanity to want to be members of a meritocracy. The raising of successful entrepreneurs to the point of worship is prevalent because most people believe that they too have the equal chance at rewards of which the elite have already reaped. All the rats have an equal chance at the cheese if they work hard enough. A just meritocracy promises to give ample rewards for the efforts of the participants. This seems fair enough. The obvious objection is that not all people have an equal chance. Even if we give people an equal starting point, perhaps two individuals born on the same day to equally affluent families, there are an innumerable amount of invisible factors that will surely sway the success attained by each. Many proponents of the meritocratic ideology would chalk the happenstance of unfair starting points to a brute fact of life. Tough noogies. If you’re just dealt a bad hand, and you’re unable to manifest success from it, then you just weren’t meant to be successful. This seems eerily reminiscent of the Calvinistic elect; a predetermined fate of which you are either a member of God’s favored flock, or you are doomed. If this is an exaggeration, then what are we to say of how success is then managed? It seems that if people from the illusory starting point become successful, that only their children will have the immense advantage of also becoming successful (like Romney himself), and it maintains a strict genealogy of equity and affluence. The definition of this phenomenon is what is labeled a Plutocracy. This is the plausible slippery slope of a strict meritocracy. Republicans are advocating exactly this when they hiss at the notions of social safety nets. If we are to laud the successful, who become successful almost definitely on the merits of circumstance, and we are also to let the poor be damned, then we are embracing Social Darwinism.
The good news is that our society doesn’t work like this. Philosopher and political theorist John Rawls has been able to illustrate a set of rules by which all can abide, and in which the quandaries of moral obligations can be satisfied. The metric for a fair start that John Rawls proposes enables people to become successful but only if they work to the benefit of the least well off. In other words, it does not advocate for communism, where all are equal. It also negates Plutocracy. What Rawls’ differential principle says is that if we are to allow for vast ranges of social and economic inequality, those at the top should be morally obligated to contribute to the well being and wealth of opportunities that the least well off should enjoy. Please watch famed Harvard professor Mike Sandel explains it HERE in the fullest terms.
The great news is that this is how our society works now! It is also why we cringe at allowing room for trickle-down economics in a moral discussion about wealth inequality. There is too much room for corruption when the least well off wait with baited breath on the charity of the successful amongst us. If there is no policy or social contract to ensure there is a just distribution of opportunity (not necessarily wealth!) then there is no motivation to be just. In order to shift away from the traps of a strict meritocracy, the United States has implemented several safety nets to protect members of its society from becoming victims of Social Darwinism. This could be the result of Rawlsian political ethics.
The Republican National Convention hinged on their supporters’ faith in the most successful people in the nation, and their willingness to redeem their political and economic ideologies. When the RNC banners shouted We Built That!, it was a reminder that everyone owed them special treatment. We have noticed that they try to legislate the special treatment for themselves! The reason why most people want to raise taxes on the 1%; the reason why we want to regulate the economic practices of the richest people; the reason why we want to make sure everyone has access to health care, a good education, and a safe environment is because we all intuitively feel morally obligated to equality. Meritocracy, Plutocracy, and Social Darwinism only appeals to the people it benefits! They have no choice but to pitch the dogma in the form of plausible policy. No informed person willingly signs up to be subjugated to these political structures. Without shunting the majority of financially destitute Americans, the GOP has not laid out a plan for which they can ethically rebuild the nation. If we are to submit to success by any means necessary, then we are opening the door for a very, very scary future.