The Romney-Ryan-Rand Ticket: Why Obama’s “You didn’t build that!” helps him far more than it hurts him

How can that be?


No one who is outraged by President Obama’s statement will vote for him anyway. The statement clangs in the ear of a disaffected Republican base, but they won’t decide the election. Swing voters will. “You didn’t build that!” is exactly the kind of caring and inclusive signal that sings in the ears of moderates and women swing-voters–the very people on which this election will turn.

Every time Romney-Ryan bring “You didn’t build that!” up, and hold it in derision, they reinforce what everyone (except the far right-wing) fears about them: that they’re social Darwinists in the grip of what might be called the selfishness delusion. Someone in the grip of the selfishness delusion is under the mistaken impression that the ghost in his machine (or the spirit in his body, or the mind in his brain) transcends history and is free of the structures, the fields of relations, and even the matter that surrounds him. And, on achieving something, he talks like this:

For my success, I have no thanks to express to my parents, to my community, to my nation, and certainly not to my nation’s government. I did it myself.

This, of course, sounds like someone without skin in the game–which is exactly a problem that Romney-Ryan must overcome to win the majority of those still on the fence and persuadable. You can’t sound like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel, contemptuous of the federal government and of the masses generally, and expect to improve your chances to reach 50% + 1 of the American electorate in 2012.

And evolutionary psychology is important here. Human beings are not sharks in the ocean with the evolutionary strategy of going it alone. They are primates that live in cooperative arrangements–social animals with the evolutionary strategy of establishing close-knit and extended families–including national families. That means that they are highly attuned to being dissed, to feeling stung if they’re low in a hierarchy, and to alpha-male bullies. They want signals from others in their family that they will sacrifice themselves on behalf of the group. That’s why the tax returns issue resonates and why white middle and upper class Republicans are careful never to call on eliminating welfare without portraying the poor as undeserving or alien (read black). Human beings have a sense of fairness and tribal identity, and they will only boot someone out of their tribe if they are quite convinced that he or she has done something of a criminal nature or is actually an alien within it. Otherwise, they leave no child (or elderly person or citizen in general) behind.

Thus for Romney-Ryan to retort to “You didn’t build that!” with “O yes I did!” is to make a declaration of separateness from the American tribe. It’s to display callousness toward their larger family–the nation–the very people they mean to lead. But if you want to be the alpha-male, you’ve got to be careful that you speak softly and don’t separate yourself from the group. You can’t declare, as your favorite novel, a book that fantasizes about the escape of the rich into isolated enclaves (the theme of Atlas Shrugged).

President Obama obviously is all in with the American people. He’s the guy who got Osama bin Laden, and he’s determined to be a fair and honest broker when it comes to cutting back on government in a time of tight budgets. He won’t leave any law-abiding citizen behind. He’ll do his best to see that the rich pay their fair share.

But Romney-Ryan? It’s not clear that they will care in the least for those left behind. They, after all, claim to have succeeded without the least help–they have what they’ve got because of themselves. They’re special. But not even the most narcissistic movie stars talk this way when they win Oscars. Instead, they’re generous and show gratitude for their success. They don’t forget anybody.

Ayn Rand’s novels are a guilty pleasure and I understand why Paul Ryan likes them so much. It’s important to sometimes assert yourself. But Rand’s novels are more a private thing and a self-help thing for people needing inspiration to say “No!” to years of abuse (either from religion, free-loaders on your life, or bureaucrats). The problem is that neither Romney nor Ryan have been abused. They are unhindered in their existence and have been all of their lives. Romney pays less in taxes–perhaps substantially less–than the average American and Ryan is a millionaire from a wealthy Wisconsin family. They are thus carrying a message of resentment that people deliver when they mean to narrow their affiliations, not expand them.

But when you’re running for president the pretense is that your affiliation is with 300 million Americans, not with a small tribe of the disaffected.

Romney and Ryan have impressed the sharks with their independence (do sharks watch television?), and the two of them are flying “eight miles high” on a rich blanket of rhetorical hot air, but if they mean to win they’ve got to shift course and come back down to Earth. Sharks won’t be voting in November, evolved communal primates will. Know your audience.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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