Sprints and Relays

While every observer noted that yesterday’s first Democratic Convention session featured many lusty attacks on Romney, Ryan and the Republican Party, some of the messaging was a bit more subtle than you might think from listening to the shouts from the podium and cheers from the audience. If “We Built It!” was the slogan of the GOP Convention’s first day, the Democratic response was not the expected “No You Didn’t!” but “You Finished It After Others Started It.” There was a distinct emphasis on the idea that the individual success celebrated in Tampa depends not just on public support (e.g., infrastructure, government-backed loans and tax subsidies, etc.) but on past public efforts to open up opportunity to all.

This theme was most prominent in San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s super-prime-time “keynote” address. He spent a great deal of time discussing the multi-generational platform of progress on which he had been able to reach the highest rungs of individual achievement. And then he offered a very pointed (if mixed) metaphor: “The American Dream is not a sprint or a marathon; it’s a relay.”

In his brilliant book Nixon Agonistes, published more than forty years ago, Gary Wills offered a long discussion of the American addiction to foot-race metaphors for economic life. Conservatives, he observed, tend to concentrate on the purity of competition, while liberals stress a “fair start” in the race of life. Nobody much doubts the basic scheme of individual success, at least ideally, as reflecting individual worth, but there is significant variation in how much public intervention is necessary to establish “fair” rules for the race.

By introducing the “relay” metaphor, Castro relies on the traditional “liberal” idea that individuals do not begin the “race” on an equal footing. But the concept of beginning where one’s forebears have handed off “the baton” produces an experientially plausible way to talk about the privileges of elites and the critical importance of publicly guaranteed “equal opportunity.”

The “relay” metaphor is particularly powerful for minority folk who have a keen awareness of how recently and with what great sacrifices basic civil rights were earned. And I’d bet it’s especially strong among Latinos, whose culture combines a powerful aspirational element with an understanding of the intergenerational nature of “success.” In Tampa, the many speeches touting the “immigrant experience” seemed to paint a picture of people fleeing despotic societies, making it possible for their children to achieve success almost instantly in America’s atmosphere of freedom, by the work of their own hands. I do not imagine this is a particularly common experience for first- and second-generation Americans.

I don’t blame Republicans for trying to adapt their radically individualist economic philosophy to the sentiments of demographic groups who take a dim view of the GOP thanks to its hostility to immigration reform and to “equal opportunity” efforts generally. But it’s likely less appealing than the kind of more communitarian understanding of individual achievement Castro displayed. What’s unclear is how non-minority Americans of modest means view the question. Does your average non-college-educated white voter struggling to hang on to middle-class status identify emotionally with those job-creating entrepreneurs who were the toast of Tampa? Do they consider equal opportunity measures and the social safety net itself a “handout?” Or do they retain a sense that they needed a “hand up” to get where they are, and now need it to stay there?

It is, as I’ve suggested, a very old debate in American politics, and how it plays out on the margins of the electorate could have a big impact on the outcome.

UPDATE: David Atkins at Hullabaloo offers an eloquent dissent against the “equal opportunity” rap and the whole “meritocracy” meme, much as Gary Wills did back in 1970.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.