Mitt Romney, the US military and the 47 per cent
by Sydney Finkelstein
Republicans talk about their support of the military, without ever acknowledging that the military is the government – but Obama has not challenged Romney sufficiently on this, writes professor
The deluge of press coverage and political class chatter about the recent malapropism of Mitt Romney has been driven by a sense that here, at last, is the real Romney. When he said at the now infamous fundraiser that "there are 47 per cent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government," he was speaking for the core of the Republican party. Truth revealed.
Such was also the case when President Barack Obama famously said, "you didn't build that", a reference to the role of government, communities, and teachers in people's success. He was mocking the idea of the self-made man, the person who believes he is wholly responsible for his success because of his brains and brawn. And of course Republicans had a field day with this one, taking it on as the virtual theme of their national convention.
While a handful of sentences taken from literally volumes of speeches, ad hoc commentary, and interviews might seem unfair, these comments have gotten centre stage because people believe they expose what each candidate really thinks. Rather than carefully guarded, and vetted, responses to highly predictable questions, here are two examples that stand out for their stark points of view. That is noteworthy.
What has been lost in all this, however, is the stunning asymmetry between Republican political and economic doctrine and some of the most fundamental values that Americans believe in. And nowhere is this anomalous juxtaposition clearer than when we consider the role of the military in the United States. In fact, while there is no doubt that soldiers, sailors, and marines are respected and honored by politicians of all stripes, the armed forces may well represent the perfect example to put the Obama and Romney belief systems to the test.
If you work for the military, you work for the government. You are dependent on government and in fact as long as you are in the armed services you have virtually no other employer who can offer you another job. When you leave the service you are, to use Romney's lexicon, "entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing". There is not a politician around who would not argue that the country must support veterans returning from war.
So while Romney was certainly not thinking of the military as part of his 47 per cent, it turns out that the pact the country has made with veterans follows Romney's script. Except for one thing, of course: they have taken personal responsibility for their lives, probably more so than almost anyone else in the country.
What about Obama's builders? It is here that the military plays an even more central role. Citizens who volunteer to join the armed services are literally dedicating their lives to the safety and prosperity of the entire country. Obama's key point in that speech was that "somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive". And who more than the military?
There is a real irony here. Republicans emphasise self-direction, ingenuity, and "makers, not takers", without ever acknowledging the debt that successful people owe to the military for protecting the American way of life. Republicans talk about their support of the military, without acknowledging that the military is the government.
And most important of all, Republicans demand that successful people be allowed to keep all the spoils of their success without ever acknowledging the essential irony that it is the exact opposite sentiment – selflessness and devotion to the wider good – that defines military service. Obama and the Democrats have not challenged Romney and the Republicans to reconcile these opposing views. Even Obama's recent call for "economic patriotism" did not connect the dots in a compelling enough manner.
Here is the point: How can you self-righteously claim that wealthy people should not have to contribute to the wellbeing of society, that they deserve to keep all that they have, and that anyone who tries to take some of it away is a socialist, or worse? If correct, what does that say about the men and women who volunteer to serve the country, and their anxious families who share in their contributions?
Why would you want split the country – incorrectly as it turns out – into the 47 per cent who are called takers and everyone else who is presumably a maker? This us vs. them mindset is self-serving, but even more so, it is inaccurate and hypocritical. In America there is a powerful ideology that equates income with importance, and wealth with worth. This ideology calls for lower taxes on the rich on moral grounds, because they earned it, and they deserve it. There is no room in this ideology for sacrifice for the greater good, for giving back because it is the right thing to do. Imagine if everyone believed that.
Sydney Finkelstein is professor of strategy and leadership and associate dean for executive education at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and the author of Why Smart Executives Fail
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