Last week, congressional Republicans got together at a Chesapeake Bay resort to contemplate their political fortunes. In one presentation, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a bit of shocking news to his colleagues: Most people are not, in fact, business owners. It would be a good idea, he suggested, if they could find a way to appeal to the overwhelming majority of Americans who work for somebody else. Their aspirations don't necessarily include opening up their own store or coming up with an amazing new product, so the prospect of lowering the corporate tax rate or slashing environmental regulations may not make their pulses quicken with excitement. They're more concerned with the availability of jobs, the security of health care, and the affordability of education. "Could it actually have taken Republicans that long to realize they should address such problems, especially when Democrats have made huge gains appealing directly to middle-class voters?" asked conservative journalist Byron York, who reported on the meeting. "Apparently, yes. And even now, not all House Republicans are entirely on board. 'It's something that's been growing and taking time for members to get comfortable with,' says a House GOP aide, 'because they did spend the last decade talking about small business owners.'"
You're probably surprised at the Republicans' surprise. But it isn't so much about a numerical misconception—I'm sure that with the possible exception of a couple of the most lunkheaded Tea Partiers, the GOP members of Congress don't actually think that most Americans own businesses—as it is about a moral hierarchy they've spent so much time building up, both in their rhetoric and their own minds.
We all believe that some people are just more important than others, and for conservatives, no one is more important than business owners. Remember how gleeful they were when President Obama said "you didn't build that" when discussing businesses during the 2012 campaign? Sure, he was taken out of context (he was talking about roads and bridges, not the businesses themselves), but Republicans genuinely believed they had found the silver bullet that would take him down. He had disrespected business owners! Surely all America would be enraged and cast him from office! They made it the theme of their convention. They printed banners. They wrote songs about it. And they were bewildered when it didn't work.
Just like those members of Congress listening incredulously to Eric Cantor, they couldn't grasp that the whole country didn't share their moral hierarchy. After years of worrying primarily about the concerns of people who own businesses, they've elevated to gospel truth that the businessman's virtue is unassailable, that his rewards are justly earned, and that no effort should be spared to remove all obstacles from his path. When it comes down to a choice between, say, a business owner who would like to pay his employees as little as possible and a group of employees who'd like to be paid more, conservatives don't just see the choice as a simple one, they can't imagine why anyone wouldn't agree.
As a liberal, I have a different view, precisely because I don't place the businessman at the top of my moral hierarchy. As a society we need entrepreneurs, but there are many kinds of people we need. To be clear, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with business owners, just that the guy who owns the widget factory isn't necessarily a better person than the guy who works on the line making widgets. Owning a business can be difficult and challenging, but so can a lot of things. I know business owners who work very hard to succeed. I also know teachers who get up at 5 in the morning every day to grade papers and plan lessons, and nurses who have to comfort the dying and change people's bedpans. Those jobs are hard, too. And they don't come with the prospect of great wealth if you're good at them.
That matters too, to both liberals and conservatives. Many conservatives find wealth to be a marker of virtue—not a perfect marker, maybe, but pretty close. If you're rich, they plainly believe, it's probably because you worked hard for your money, and if you're poor it's probably because you're lazy and unreliable. Things like unemployment insurance and food stamps only reward the indolent. The bootstraps are just there waiting to be tugged on, and if you haven't grabbed a firm hold you have no one to blame but yourself.
As for the businesspeople themselves, it's little wonder that so many find warmth in the embrace of the GOP, nor that they are shocked and appalled when other people criticize them. The venture capitalist Tom Perkins may have come in for a ton of ridicule when he wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal suggesting the possibility that liberals will soon be rounding up rich people and herding them into death camps ("I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich'"), but Perkins—a guy who once killed a man with his yacht—was surely speaking for more than a few of his peers. In the Republican party they find not only tireless advocacy for policies that will help them hold and expand their wealth, but the love and admiration they so clearly crave.
In 2012 on Labor Day, that same Eric Cantor tweeted, "Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business, and earned their success." Even on the day created to honor working people, the only Americans for whom he could spare a thought were business owners. Perhaps in the year and a half since, he has come to a new awareness that even if you work for someone else, like most of us do, you're still worthy of consideration. Whether his party agrees—and whether they'll do anything about it—is another question entirely.