It’s not often that a major political party stages its key national event around a falsehood, but that’s the case for this year’s Republican National Convention. The GOP theme is “We Built It,” a derivative of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech.
Out of context, “you didn’t build that” sounds like an attack on private business. But taken in context, the meaning is clear — your business, successful or not, is partly dependent on public investments and a broader system which you didn’t build alone. Context aside, Republicans argue that their broader interpretation is correct — the president is hostile to “free enterprise.” Of course, that requires listeners to willfully disregard everything that came before the final sentence; regardless of how you spin the GOP’s take, it’s dishonest.
But “we built it” isn’t just mendacious — it’s exclusionary. Over the last month, Mitt Romney and the GOP have committed themselves to a narrow definition of “we.” In an explicit pitch to working class whites, the Republican Party has resurrected welfare as a national issue, falsely attacking Obama for “gutting” the program and ending work requirements, with an implicit message — recognized by many — that Obama is taking from “you” and giving to “them.”
Tom Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, noticed the same message in Romney’s Medicare ads, which hit Obama for taking from “your” Medicare and giving it to a program that’s “not for you.” Indeed, over the last week, Romney has, for all practical purposes, abandoned the pretense that he isn’t trying to capitalize on racial resentment. Over the weekend, he accused Obama of trying to “shore up his base” with the (fictional) welfare changes, saying that his action was “calculated to build support for him among people he wants to have excited about his reelection.” The Romney campaign has been called on this, repeatedly, but they refuse to budge — “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” said pollster Neil Newhouse.
Given the GOP’s efforts to play on racial resentment, it’s hard not see a particular subtext to the spectacle the convention offers: throngs of older white Republicans, yelling that they built this country.
That’s not to say that “we built it” is racist — it isn’t. But you have to consider this riff in the broad context of the election. When looked at in light of all the other aspects of Romney’s Atwater-esque campaign, the “we” in “we built it” seems awfully narrow.