Last night, during the Florida GOP presidential debate, Mitt Romney declared that he was “proud to be successful.” He pronounced this as thunderously as James Brown once said that he was “black and proud.”
Romney has stripped every possible moral qualifier from “success.” Questioning how one defines “success” or how one achieves this success is to question the glorious free-market capitalist system that gave us slavery and Silkwood.
Currently, success is defined as making lots of money. This is great for you in specific and great for all the people whose jobs you’ve created in the most general, non-provable sense. As Mr. Bernstein said in Citizen Kane, it’s “no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money.”
This is not to say that everyone can make a fortune. What I question is the pursuit of golden idols as the true measure of success.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, in his rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address, said that the United States should be a nation of “haves and soon-to-haves.” This is what has become of the “American dream.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman who no longer has control over her own body or a consenting adult who can’t marry another consenting adult. You’ve succeeded in this country if you “have” things — perhaps even an iPad assembled in China under inhumane conditions.
This is where we’ve come 90 years after the events in The Great Gatsby. If Tom Buchanan confronted today’s Jay Gatsby with the truth of how he made his fortune, Gatsby could retort, “I am proud of my success. How dare you question free enterprise!” True, the reason Daisy stayed with Tom is that Gatsby’s money was new not old (old money tends to be just as dirty as new, sometimes more so), but Gatsby’s business was only illegal due to excessive government regulation (prohibition). The GOP could have made a happy ending out of Fitzgerald’s work.
I recall the GOP redefining success during the 2008 presidential campaign when Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani both mocked Obama’s background as a community organizer. Public service was no longer noble. It was arguably not even a job with “actual responsibilities.” If it bothers you that modern politics has degenerated into a street fight without the splashy choreography of West Side Story, you might ask yourself why the solution to the mess is to elect people who’ve spent their lives dismantling companies or advising banks on how to best exploit consumers.
The classic Karl Rove technique is to turn someone’s strength into a weakness. When your candidate with spotty military service is running for re-election during wartime against a Vietnam veteran, you bring in some people to run down and diminish his accomplishments. Nowadays, the trick is to minimize public service — subtly with teachers and more overtly with elected officials. A “career politician” — someone who has represented the people of his or her community for years — is not to be trusted. I’m not sure why. These are generally smart individuals who could’ve made millions in the private sector. The cynical can only view the appearance of financial sacrifice as a craven grab for power. They’re usually the same people who believe people only become teachers because they couldn’t hack it on Wall Street.
Romney’s campaign is centered on the belief that he should lead the nation because he’s enriched himself for the bulk of his career in the private sector. This Rovian tactic turns on its head what could be viewed as a lack of political experience. The government isn’t a corporation. Corporations don’t usually have to explain themselves or their actions to the public. A corporation’s sole goal is profit. If that’s our nation’s goal, then we’ve already lost. I recall an issue of a comic book I read as a kid that has always stuck with me. A former villain is telling a little boy about how the hero defeated him. The little boy doesn’t know how the hero did it: The villain was stronger, faster, and overall more powerful. The former villain says all that was true but “I was only fighting for myself. He was fighting for something more.”
I’ve had the opportunity to meet several people with professional backgrounds similar to Romney’s. I don’t begrudge them their success. I just never got the impression from any of them that they were interested in fighting for something more than themselves. They were pursuing golden idols. Once they’ve attained them, the Tom Buchanans of the world tend to seek the ultimate idol — power. This power is not used to uplift but to protect their idols from the Gatsbys they fear will try to steal them.
You could probably assemble a short film about a public schoolteacher in which dozens of former students describe the impact that teacher had on their lives. Maybe someone could do that for Romney the venture capitalist and free-market job creator. If not, who really cares? He’s made a lot of money. He’s an American success, but his American “dream” is different from mine. Perhaps because my dreams don’t have borders and don’t involve “things.”