Nothing Succeeds Like Success

At Ten Miles Square, Michael Kinsley puts his finger on something that probably defines Mitt Romney’s true bond with a Republican Party that otherwise would just as soon toss him on the dustbin of history: the cult of Success, with its creed of identifying wealth and status with virtue, and any concern for equality or fairness with vice.

As Kinsley notes, Romney talks about his own success incessantly, both as a credential for national leadership and as a response to any and all criticism:

“If people think there’s something wrong with being successful in America, then they’d better vote for the other guy,” he says. “Because I’ve been extraordinarily successful, and I want to use that success and that know-how to help the American people…”

“I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”

Sure. Lovely. Let’s reward success. But the Republicans seem to think that success is self-defining. Anyone who has done well or was born well deserves what he or she has got, and maybe more, because these are society’s “job creators.”

Kinsley goes on to detail various ways in which “success” is determined by accidents of birth, not righteousness, and by luck, not pluck. Is someone remunerated for his or her work twice as much as they’d be in another country (or for that matter, in another time of history) twice as virtuous? Or as I often ask: Do people who get laid off during an economic downturn through no fault of their own become instantly less “worthy?”

No, of course, but it’s immensely comforting to the comfortable to believe not only that they have richly earned everything they’ve acquired, but that any dimunition of their wealth is an affront to morality that threatens all order and civilization. It’s a sense of entitlement far more powerful and pervasive than the much-denounced expectation of public benefits via a social safety net. And it helps justify indifference to the suffering of others–necessary, of course, to keep the virtue-machine running that is the only real alternative to anarchy–or far worse, the kind of resentment that leads people to express cold fury towards those with underwater mortgages or preexisting medical conditions. All other things being equal, I’d say resentment of other people’s failures is more inscrutable than resentment of other people’s success, since the latter have by definition received their reward and the former their punishment.

The cult of success is so central to conservative ideology in this country that it brokes little or no dissent, particularly in a Republican Party dependent on downscale white voters whose resentment of people poorer or darker or sicker than they are cannot be complicated by any doubt about the morality of markets. It’s no accident that the entire conservative commentariat came down on Newt Gingrich like a ton of bricks the moment he indulged in a producerist attack on Romney as a predatory capitalist. Start accepting fine distinctions like that, and the next thing you know you might be wondering if this banker or that oil executive is virtuous as well!

So Romney’s self-satisfaction and–yes, the word is unavoidable–self-righteousness is intergral to the world-view of the political movement he now hopes to lead to national power.

As Kinsley concludes:

I’m not ashamed to say I was successful,” Romney says. No one is asking him to be ashamed of his success. What he should be ashamed of is his complacency. It seems absurd to say so, but maybe it will take losing the presidency to teach him a little humility. If he wins, he’ll be really insufferable.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.