I surprised myself by watching a lot of the Republican convention while on vacation last week--something I've been hesitant to do most years since Pat Buchanan's "culture war" speech at the 1992 convention almost gave me a nervous breakdown. (I was young then, and probably about three times as emo as I am now.) The only thing that really bothered me was Paul Ryan's speech, for its shocking, possibly unprecedented dishonesty and straight-up hypocrisy.
Romney's speech was pretty much what I think everyone expected: competent and unmemorable. It probably "worked" in that it helped recast him as a viable alternative to an incumbent president who's lost a lot of his luster to the low-information, weak partisan voter--which he had to do after that disastrous trip abroad earlier this summer. But it presented neither a compelling biography-based argument nor a convincing, or even really present, policy-based argument. Nate Silver wrote that Romney was presenting himself as a generic Republican, which is the correct call if the idea is to frame the election as a referendum on the incumbent. But, as I wrote last month, the Ryan selection went a long way toward positioning the vote as a choice between two sharply contrasting sets of plans.
But the contrast was present, just at a lower and more fundamental level. It's been well documented that the Republicans' fixation on President Obama's misstatement of "You didn't build that" is dishonest, intentionally or otherwise. (In this sense, the Clint Eastwood episode--an old man arguing with an empty chair as a stand-in for a president who's only present in their imagination--was the perfect representation of how Fox News fills most of their program day.) Yet it does align to how they think the economy works. Gail Collins says it in her most recent column better than I could:
The big, if-not-quite-articulated, message in Tampa was that in a free economy, everybody will get what they deserve. There is no need to worry about the vast, growing gap between the richest and the rest, or the shrinking middle class, or the fact that America currently has one of the worst rates of social mobility in the developed world.
Untrammeled, the business sector will create plenty of jobs, and the hard-working big-dreamers will jump in, amass wealth and achieve success. You cut taxes, reduce regulation and let the magic happen. It’s that or what Paul Ryan called “a dull adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”
Listening to the convention speeches, it was easy to get the impression that every high-ranking Republican in the country had parents who were truck drivers or convenience store workers who moved up entirely through their own efforts. Also, there were a lot of grandfathers who worked in the mines.
Her Times colleague David Brooks cited a finding from a recent Pew survey that sets out the crucial partisan difference I've come to believe is the biggest issue in this year's election:
Overall, 46% say that circumstances beyond one’s control are more often to blame if a person is poor, while 38% say that an individual’s lack of effort is more often to blame; 11% blame both. These views have fluctuated over the years, but opinion typically has been divided or pluralities have blamed circumstances, rather than a lack of effort, for people being poor.
By more than two-to-one (61% to 24%), Democrats say circumstances beyond a person’s control are primarily to blame for them being poor. By about the same margin (57% to 28%), Republicans blame a person’s lack of effort. Among independents more say circumstances, rather than a lack of effort, are mostly to blame (46% vs. 37%).
Now, we've all heard the stories about these proud individuals who airbrush all the external help out of their own bootstrap story, including a few of the speakers at last week's convention and--my all-time favorite--the actor Craig T. Nelson saying, "I've been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No." And I actually sat in some "media trainings" around the middle of the last decade in which PR consultants insisted to me and other policy researchers that it was always best to emphasize structural forces rather than individual circumstances when writing about poverty, because if you focus on the individual it's too easy for the reader either to fault her/his choices or to conclude that the circumstances were unique to the individual. (My reaction to this bit of dubious wisdom was to wonder if these people ever actually had tried to pitch stories.)
Of course, in the large majority of cases the answer to the Pew question is "both": circumstances and individual decisions--or, as a consultancy I used to work with and continue to admire pithily puts it, "chance and choice"--will play their parts. But the two factors don't exist in isolation, and one even could say that low effort in a context of daunting external obstacles is a rational choice. Children growing up in impoverished and dysfunctional families, attending lousy schools in unsafe communities, have to make much more of an "individual effort" to be successful by the definition of mainstream society: educational success, avoidance of unhealthy behaviors, and so on.
The really talented ones might conclude that their best chances for advancement lie on a very different path. One of the great and subtle themes of "The Wire" was that Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Marlo Stanfield and "Proposition Joe" Stewart are exceptionally able individuals, the Mitt Romneys of their milieu. (And their henchmen, Boadie Broaddus and Wee-Bay Bryce and Chris Partlow and Snoop Pearson and the rest, are probably analogous to reasonably effective but limited middle managers.) Stringer, the visionary drug kingpin and part-time business student, was probably the only one who saw this and definitely the only one who contemplated the other path, but the intention was pretty clear.
To put it another way, the odds for Mitt Romney were a lot better than those for Bill Clinton. (I say Clinton, not Obama, because while Obama's circumstances were challenging in some respects--the absence of a father, the constant moving around--his parents were both supremely well educated and he had a supportive and reasonably well resourced extended family. Romney's dad actually didn't finish college, yet was a huge success by any measure. I find it mildly interesting that Romney's policy agenda would be a lot better for children with dual Ph.D. parents, as Barack Obama was, while Obama's policies pretty clearly would be better for children of non-college grad parents, like Mitt Romney.)
At any rate, each side offers what amounts to a caricature of the other's position: in classic Ayn Rand style, Republicans assert that Democrats endlessly indulge society's "losers," and support the wrong side in the battle of takers vs. makers. Democrats blast Republicans as holding an unrealistic notion of individual agency, if not outright contempt for those worse off. (I've been guilty of this more often than I'd like.) But I think the Pew numbers suggest that Republicans in reality are closer to the Democratic stereotype than vice-versa.
The Republican story is simpler, as their stories tend to be--and I mean that as a compliment. I suspect there's something very deep in human nature that compels us to believe that everyone is the author of his/her own fate, which is the essence of what Romney/Ryan is selling. But I also think most people have an understanding of the larger forces that helped inform their success, or lack of same, and probably a sense of how relatively lucky or unlucky their circumstances have been. The Obama/Biden policy menu is much more aligned to this notion of how the world works.
Democratic policy thinkers such as Jared Bernstein sometimes describe this conflict as YOYO ("You're On Your Own") versus WITT ("We're In This Together"). It seems far-fetched to contemplate an election that turns on which vision is more compelling to whatever small slice of the electorate is up for grabs; I don't think undecided voters really work that way. But what's more likely is that the result of the election will go a long way toward determining what agenda is implemented in the coming years.