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Bootstraps, Upward Mobility, and Politics

Ezra Klein tells me that I will become a smarter person if I regularly go and read Ross Douthat's weblog. So I surf on over and find the very interesting:

Tim Pawlenty and the American Dream: Amid the sudden wave of Tim Pawlenty coverage, perhaps the strangest observation belongs to Christian Schneider, writing at National Review:

[W]hile [Pawlenty's] introductory video is effective at positioning himself as a “truth teller,” it contains one of my foremost pet peeves in political commercials: the “I’m from humble beginnings” talking point.... [I]t’s true that there are things to be admired in coming from humble beginnings. It teaches some people to value simple pleasures, and it gives them a sense of what manual labor is really like. But let’s face it — among people who grow up in trailer parks, the number who end up taking paternity tests on the Maury Povich Show outstrips congressmen by about 1.2 million to one. Yet voters seem to associate growing up poor as evidence of character and accomplishment.... Should we discount Paul Ryan because his family was fairly well off? Did Mitch Daniels drop out of the presidential race because his father was an executive at a pharmaceutical company? Is Al Gore’s opulent upbringing more objectionable than, say, everything he’s done since then? Of course, the answer is no. In fact, the inverse is true. When I drive by a house with a car up on blocks in the front yard, it doesn’t compel me to walk up to the guy in the tank top on the front porch, hand him my wallet, and trust him to spend my money wisely...

To this, Ross responds:

But the point of highlighting a candidate’s humble background isn’t just to suggest a “jes’ folks” common touch. It’s to emphasize how far they’ve come in life — all the way from that “house with a car up on blocks” to whatever distinguished office they hold now. In these kind of political narratives, growing up poor isn’t just being presented as evidence of character and accomplishment in and of itself. Rather, what’s being suggested is that growing up poor and then making something impressive of yourself is a more significant accomplishment than being born in relative comfort and doing well in life. This isn’t some class-warrior conceit; it’s a basic premise of our democratic culture. We can admire achievement in all its forms while still believing that the man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps has done more with his resources, and demonstrated more fortitude and gumption, than the similar-successful son or daughter of the haute-bourgeoisie....

Now all things are not equal.... A Horatio Alger story is just one variable among many, and if you think that the son of a pharmaceutical executive would make a better president than the son of a truck driver, then by all means, vote for the son of a pharmaceutical executive.... But that doesn’t mean that Pawlenty’s background doesn’t tell us anything at all, or that citing it in campaign ads is just a way of pandering to blue-collar chauvinism. I, too, wouldn’t hand my wallet to someone who lives in a house with a car up on blocks. But if I had to hand my wallet to someone, I’d be more likely to hand it to the guy who knows, from lived experience, how hard it can be to fill a wallet in the first place.

My suspicion is that Douthat is missing a sea-change that has taken place in the Republican Party over the past two generations.

In the 1950s Dean Acheson could write that the Republican Party was a valuable asset to America because it was the party of people for whom the system was working--the party of the entrepreneurial and the upwardly-mobile. It was the party of the rail-splitter, of the, in Abraham Lincoln's words:

prudent, penniless beginner in the world [who] labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.... [I]t that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war on capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else…

Today, by contrast, not being upwardly mobile is no bar to reaching the top of the Republican Party--and to talk about how you are upwardly mobile seems to get you snarked at in the pages of National Review.

This may, I think, mark a transformation: from a party of those who want to gain something, to a party of those who have something to lose--and who greatly fear that unless they keep the system rigged to their benefit to support them, they will lose it.