"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
Excerpt from President Barack Obama's speech at a Roanoke, Virginia campaign stop on July 13, 2012.
Americans hate two things more than anything else: big government and taxes. Thus, it is an uphill battle for anyone who runs for office to justify the vital role of government and taxes in building America's future. In the above quote, President Obama is attempting to convey the essential role that tax-supported public infrastructure plays in generating opportunities for private enterprise. Put simply, Barack Obama is saying, "It takes a village." In other words, individual achievement is predicated upon public support. That being the case, Barack Obama contends that it is important to both acknowledge and support the role that the village plays in generating individual success. And here we arrive at the crux of the debate: Should the wealthy be under any obligation to support the village?
The subtext to this discussion is that there is a huge battle being waged in Washington over taxes. Bush-era tax cuts are bankrupting the United States and Barack Obama is trying to save a sinking ship by eliminating Dubya's tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. The rich, as Barack Obama has stated over and over again, need to pay their fair share.
Generally speaking, Democrats believe that individuals are beholden to their village and, therefore, should support it by paying taxes. Republicans take a different view. Republicans believe in individualism: Individuals are responsible for their own success and, therefore, are under no obligation to share the fruits of their labors with less successful villagers.
As a means of putting a different spin on the tax battle, while also appealing to Republicans and individualistically-minded independent voters, the Romney campaign has recently created advertisements that yank the last two sentences of Barack Obama's quote out of context: " If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
As one might expect, business owners who have seen Romney's artistically-edited ads have expressed outrage. "How dare President Obama suggest that business owners have not built their own businesses?"
The beauty of this is that Barack Obama never did--and never would--make such an insulting statement. Again, in its proper context, Obama was simply saying that individual success is predicated upon support from a village--and the most successful villagers have an obligation to repay some of that largesse. Although Republicans tend to disagree with that perspective, most would be willing to concede that Obama's in-context message is perfectly consistent with mainstream Democratic talking points. However, Romney's crafty excision makes it sound like President Obama has suddenly made a radical, leftist break with mainstream US politics. Claiming that individuals do not deserve any credit for their hard work is the same kind of ideological claptrap that cold war Soviet leaders used to propagate. However, no serious US presidential contender could ever hope to win office by launching such an ignorant attack on individualism. Thus, Romney's cunningly-edited sound bite is clearly a distortion of Barack Obama's intended point, but will anyone bother to figure that out? In the dumbed-down, sound bite reality of mass media politics, truth generally takes a backseat to sensationalist nonsense.
Score one for Mitt Romney! Instead of making a serious effort propose an alternate, Republican-inspired solution to the fiscal crisis that the United States is facing, Romney has launched a media counterstrike which is designed to ignite extremist hostilities--and that will further aggravate the gridlock in Washington--by falsifying his opponent's message. Congratulations to Mitt Romney for dragging US political discourse to the lowest common denominator: If you can't beat your opponent, then fabricate lies that are designed to foment hatred. Heck, if it worked for Tricky Dick Nixon, then it can work for Mitt Romney too.
If this is how Mitt Romney "solves problems" on the campaign trail, just imagine how he'll manage America's crises from the Oval Office.
Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University - Pueblo.