Aaron Regunberg: Republicans Did Not Build That

Friday, August 31, 2012


During the 2009 debate around the Affordable Care Act, which includes around $700 billion in savings to Medicare, an interesting new slogan began popping up on the signs of Republican protesters and in the headlines of conservative blogs: “Keep government out of my Medicare!”

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It’s a funny line, but it’s actually a very incisive one, as well. It cuts to the heart of what seems to be one of the most important falsehoods upon which today’s Republican Party is based. The core of most conservative arguments is that government is bad, that real Americans never use it for help, so in conclusion it’s unfair for anyone else to get supported by the government. The big, gaping flaw in this understanding of the world is that nearly all of the conservatives who make it—who’ve achieved such great success that they don’t want to be dragged down by the needy masses—have benefited tremendously from government support. The Medicare issue above is a great example: “What? Obama wants to extend healthcare access to Americans who can’t afford it? That’s not fair! I’ve never gotten a government handout, why should these lazy, undeserving people who can’t afford healthcare get one? And this better not mess with my Medicare coverage!”

The misconceptions and ignorance (and, at a higher level on the food chain, lies) that created signs saying, “Don’t steal from Medicare to support socialized medicine” are not an isolated affair in the GOP. They’re a fundamental part of the conservative worldview, and the Republican National Convention has put that on vivid display this week.

I haven’t been able to watch the entire GOP National Convention, but the parts I’ve been able to catch make one thing overwhelming clear—the modern-day Republican platform requires a serious misunderstanding of the role that government has had in American history and, indeed, American life today. Charles Pierce wrote a great piece in Esquire after the first night of the convention that takes a detailed look at this issue, and I want to highlight some of his insights along with some of the thoughts I had while watching.

The slogan for the first night of the convention was “We Did Build It,” a line that has become a centerpiece of the Romney campaign after President Obama made the patently, self-evidently true comment that business owners ship products along roads that, chances are, they, the business owners, did not actually build. Obama was making a relatively obvious point—that government does important things, like invest in roads and infrastructure and education and public safety that we all need to have a successful economy and society.

Because this simple fact of life is anathema to today’s Republican Party, conservatives chose to spend the first day of their convention trying to prove Obama wrong. But they had a very strange way of going about that. Take, for example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s keynote speech, in which Christie used lessons from his own upbringing to explain why government is the problem and anyone who uses it needs to man up and be an American. Here’s what he said about his immigrant parents:

“They both lived hard lives. Dad grew up in poverty. After returning from Army service, he worked at the Breyer’s icre-cream plant in the 1950s. With that job, and the GI Bill, he put himself through Rutgers University at night to become the first in his family to earn a college degree.”

So Christie’s father’s success—which, needless to say, laid the foundation for Christie’s own opportunities and success—was all of his own doing. Except, of course, for his reliance on the GI Bill, one of the biggest pieces of social welfare policy in American history, which used tax dollars to send Christie’s father to Rutgers (which, I should mention, is a public, tax-funded university). The GI Bill also generously supported the purchase of the Christie’s first house, which became the foundation for the family’s wealth (incidentally, if your family bought a house in the suburbs in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, they also probably did so using the help of the GI Bill and other federal homeownership policies). So yes, they totally built that all themselves, except, you know, for the massive and critical government assistance they received.

Earlier on that day, the convention’s speaking program featured Jack Gilchrist, a New Hampshire metal-shop owner who was used in several of the Romney campaign’s “You didn’t build that” attacks by prominently claiming that he and he alone built his business. The problem for Jack, of course, is that his company has received multiple millions of dollars in small-business loans from—you guessed it—the government. Interestingly enough, all of the other business-owner surrogates Romney featured in his attacks on Obama have also relied heavily on government contracts, credit, and other public assistance. Jack was followed by Sher Valenzuela, GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in Delaware, who spoke about her own business that she and she alone built, not mentioning the consulting she’s done for different groups on how to get government contracts, but talking quite a bit about her husband and father, both of whose Army salaries came right from our tax dollars.

I could go on and on here, but I think I should try to wrap up with the moral of the story. So here it is, conservatives: you have been helped by government. Chances are, you have been greatly helped by government. If your family was, like most American families, not in the middle class in the 1930s but in the middle class by the 1960s, then you probably received more government welfare—in the form of subsidized education, subsidized home mortgages, employment funded in some way by government contracts, and massive investments in transportation and suburban infrastructure—than anyone currently on TANF (Temporary Assistance of Need Families) could ever dream of.

Which is fine! It’s great! It’s allowed you to have new opportunities and find new success, and that’s a really good thing. But now that you have that success, you can’t pull up the drawbridge behind you. You can’t kick the public assistance ladder down after you climbed up it, and then claim you flew up there all by yourself. And you sure as heck can’t go around ranting about how we need to destroy all the other ladders in the country because they’re keeping the American people weak and dependent.

Or at least if you do, you should try to be a little less obvious about how dishonest you’re being.


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