The New Frontiers
As I watched the returns come in from South Carolina, I was paying more attention to Mitt Romney’s concession speech than to the triumph of Newt Gingrich’s resurgent campaign. The former governor of Massachusetts had run into trouble over his role in killing jobs as head of a corporate buy-out firm, Bain Capital. Rick Perry had called Romney “a vulture capitalist” and Gingrich had said his opponent was a participant in “exploitation.” Still, Romney didn’t back off, launching into a full-throated defense of “the free enterprise system.” The Republican Party, he declared, “doesn’t demonize prosperity. We celebrate success ... When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they‘re not only attacking me, they’re attacking every person who dreams of a better future.”
It only made sense for Romney, who struck this theme repeatedly during the primary battle, to attempt to turn his obscene wealth, a potential liability in a year when income inequality has emerged as a major concern, into a strength. However, I was struck at the way he did so, his praise of capitalism eclipsing the saccharine bromides of his compatriots with a fantasia that evoked the heroic industrialists of “Atlas Shrugged.” Making money, he seemed to say, was a religious pursuit, like taking the sacrament, not a profession.
However, it sounded more like John Calvin than Joseph Smith. Calvin, an influential Lutheran theologian from whom the Puritans drew their beliefs, posited that those destined for salvation had been chosen prior to their birth and that their prosperity signified God’s favor. The Puritans carried that attitude to Massachusetts, and it spread throughout what was to be the United States, morphing into what we know as the Protestant work ethic.
Before the emergence of America, the view that wealth indicated superior intelligence or entitled a man to pride of place within a society was a decidedly minority opinion. Read Shakespeare and see Hamlet’s distaste for Osric. Or skim Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and notice the chorus’s ambivalence about Creon. In the New Testament, Jesus famously states, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
All that changed with us. The self-made man, as conceived by Horatio Alger, earned his wealth by the sweat of his own brow, pulling himself up by his bootstraps. His fortune was deserved and it placed him above other citizens in multiple respects, not just in his means. The poor were to blame for their lot and had to be abandoned to their fate.
In the Progressive Era, statesmen such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson defied that American mythology, reining in the worst practices of robber barons, busting trusts, and instituting a progressive taxation system via the 16th Amendment. The worship of money fell out of favor with elites, who realized that individual wealth creation involves a lot of luck and is impossible without help from larger society.
And we are only talking about the self-made men here. What about trust-fund babies? What about Mitt Romney and others who made a killing in financial services? Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart actually produced things of value; the Wall Street crowd shifts around money on paper for its own profit, and a case could be made that the sector does more harm than good.
Despite all this, Calvin’s idea persists in conservative ideology. Of course, this is deliberate for the Protestant work ethic is the keystone of Republican thinking; without it, the entire structure collapses. That is why they insist so adamantly on it, telling Americans that they too can be the next Warren Buffett. The most egregious thing they do is wrap their message in the flag, invoking the Pilgrims, the Founders and Framers, and the suburban bourgeoisie of the 1950s.
What they forget, though, is that parallel to the dominant Calvinist culture another tradition exists, of which many in the present-day are unconscious adherents. The American Left is not, alone, the story of Jewish Socialists taking the podium at Cooper Union or trade unionists agitating for higher pay. It is a tale of an older vintage, with a wider set of characters, shaped by class identity and struggle. It begins with Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when backwoods yeomen in Virginia took arms against coastal elites who sought to impose themselves on the frontier. It continues in the late 1800s with farmers who hated the railroad companies and resented the government’s extortionate monetary policy, forming the Populist Party and starting cooperatives. It winds into the 1930s and hurtles toward Huey Long and his disciples. The most recent chapters end in South Carolina, in no other place but a Republican presidential primary.