This week the Republican party gathered in Tampa to tell a terrible and tragic tale of American decline. They couldn't quite say that, explicitly, of course. This is the party of Reagan and sunny optimism, or so they'd like to present themselves, but you couldn't help notice that the three days of speeches on the convention floor were an orgy of imagined persecution, grievance and doleful recollections of halcyon days gone by.
But the packaging for this message was insistent invocation of American greatness. As Rachel Maddow's team documented in a montage for msnbc's convention coverage, almost every single speaker told a story of upward mobility, usually taken from their own family's past: tracing the arc of the American dream that had brought them to the podium.
Part of this is just standard political treacle, a way for, say, an extremely wealthy prep school graduate like Ann Romney, to seem relatable. But the larger reason this was such a dominant theme at the RNC is that the Republican Party's platform and tribal identity are zealously committed to the notion of American exceptionalism, and when people talk about American exceptionalism, this is usually what they mean.
The notion that America was different and better than other countries, particularly its ancestors in Europe, precedes America's ascension to the role of sole super-power and global hegemon. That America, unblemished by the legacy of feudalism, a land without nobles and royalty, was a place where each man could rise to any station in life.
Sen. Marco Rubio: "America was founded on the principle that every person has God-given rights... That power belongs to the people. That government exists to protect our rights and serve our interests. That no one should be trapped in the circumstances of our birth. That we should be free to go as far as our talents and work can take us.
Or as Mike Huckabee put it:
"Our Founding Fathers left taxation and tyranny seeking religious liberty and a society of meritocracy rather than aristocracy."
We should note that there is something more than a little odd about the celebration of American meritocracy at a convention convened to nominate a business executive turned governor turned presidential candidate who rose from humble origins as the son of a business executive turned governor turned presidential candidate. A convention that on the same night in which Mike Huckabee decried the aristocracy of foreign lands, featured Senator Rand Paul, son of congressman Ron Paul, uncorking a litany of up by the bootstraps stories shortly before the screening of a video that celebrated the last two Republican presidents, one the son of the other, who, himself, was the son of a senator.
Somewhat oddly almost every single one of the stories of "we-built-it," plucky American success didn't revolve around the speakers own experience of social mobility but rather that of their hardworking relatives and ancestors. It struck me, listening to these invocations of the labors of previous generations as a slightly odd note, a backward looking tour of nostalgia for an America that we are losing. But of course, that's precisely the message of the Republican party this year and its a potent one because it's based on a core reality.
The dream of American mobility is slipping away. We all know about the extreme and accelerating inequality, but much less is made of our stagnating, even declining social mobility. Mobility is harder to measure than inequality, but nearly all studies show that it has plateaued, or declined for the past several decades.
Forty-three percent of those born into the poorest fifth of households will stay in the poorest fifth, while only 4% will make it to the richest 5th. But 40% of those born into the richest 5th of households stay there, and only 8% fall down to the poorest fifth. In other words, those born rich stay rich, those born poor stay poor, just like those stultifying, bygone aristocracies our forefathers fled.
This is the core betrayal at the rumbles beneath the surface of our politics, and while the GOP won't put it in those terms, they understand viscerally the unease and anxiety and even desperation it has caused in voters. And they have a story to tell about why it happened. It's not the excesses of global capitalism or american finance or the rigged game of rent-seeking, oligopolistic corporate entities who have captured Washington, instead it is Barack Obama who, in three quick years, single-handedly shifted America away from its meritocratic foundations towards an ethos of handouts, welfare and dependence.
That's the message. The American dream is dying because the first black president is doling out food stamps and welfare checks to the lazy and indolent. He's seducing Americans into dependence, sapping our natural ingenuity, and in the process making us, in some deep sense, less America.
It is, of course, ridiculous. First, and most crucially, the decline in social mobility is a trend that started well before Barack Obama took office. It's been part of American capitalism for several decades. And the increase of those using the social safety net, simply is not Barack Obama's doing. It's the product of the financial crisis and the Great Recession. In fact, if anything, our safety net has been remarkably stingy. Despite the fact that 2.6 million more people were living in poverty at the end of 2010 than in 2009, only an additional 7,677 people enrolled in TANF, better known as welfare. And aside from one small temporary increase in food stamp eligibility for single people without kids during the worst few months of recovery, Barack Obama has not expanded food stamp eligibility. In fact, the last two expansions of food stamp eligibility came under George W. Bush, one of which rightly restored eligibility for legal immigrants and earned an "Ay" vote from one Paul Ryan.
So it's not really about the reality of what's happened to this country in this maddeningly disappointing recovery. It's about telling voters that the undeserving are making out like bandits, while they're being robbed of their just deserts. For the real subtext of the declaration "We built it" is, as Clint Eastwood said on the convention's final night to ear-shattering applause, "We own this country."
And someone else, someone who's not us has taken it away, "stolen" in the phrasing of Reince Preibus talking about Medicare, and given it to those other people over there. It's an ugly message, but in a time of anxiety and diminished expectations, not a stupid one.