The Five Most Vapid Lines from Eric Cantor’s Would-Be Speech
The success of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots can be partly measured by the attention paid by political and media elites to some of the movement’s key issues—inequality, unemployment, and crushing levels of household debt. As the folks at Think Progress have charted, attention has shifted from Republican-induced crisis (see: debt ceiling debate, unnecessary deficit fretting) to the suffering of ordinary Americans in the recession.
One symbol of this changing narrative is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s sudden realization that income inequality is an actual issue he needs to address. Last Friday, Cantor was scheduled to deliver a speech at the University of Pennsylvania’s elite Wharton Business School.
But poor Cantor realized the talk would be open to the public, including hundreds of angry protesters—from Occupy Philadelphia and the local labor movement—who planned to protest the event. Rather than face dissent, Cantor abruptly cancelled his speech early Friday morning. Apparently, the only people who really need to hear his party’s stance on historic levels of income inequality are those who benefit from it.
The 2,417 word speech released by his office is a neat distillation of the contemporary Republican Party’s inability to seriously deal with the economic issues that plague many Americans. Full of platitudes and vacuous rhetoric, the speech is almost painful to read.
We read the whole speech—so you don’t have to—and found the five most vapid selections:
1. “My grandmother worked her fingers to the bone so that her sons could have a better life than she did.”
Cantor’s speech opens with the story of his grandmother, an impoverished Eastern European Jew who moved to America—the land of opportunity—and managed to carve out a place for her family by sheer force of will.
It’s the classic Horatio Alger myth: If you just work hard enough and really strive, then you too can be in the middle class or perhaps, one day, fabulously wealthy. Implicit is the assumption that those who aren’t able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are a bunch of lazy, parasitic wastrels. If you aren’t succeeding there must be something wrong with you, because the politico-economic system couldn’t possibly be at fault.
Cantor’s belief in this myth would be kind of cute, if it didn’t have real world policy implications. His claim that “Each generation is able to get a little further ahead, climbing up the ladder of success in our society,” is simply no longer true. Today, social mobility is being strangled by exploding income inequality and stagnant real wages.
When the conservative-bias Economist magazine worries about America’s lack of social mobility, we have a problem.
As Campus Progress alumnus Matt Zeitlin pointed out last year, there are reams and reams of evidence proving that intergenerational social mobility is significantly less prevalent in contemporary America than it is in most other developed countries. Zeitlin highlights a paper by a Federal Reserve of Chicago economist which concludes that “the United States is substantially less mobile than previous research indicated.”
In short, Cantor’s stirring faith in Ragged Dick is not grounded in reality.
2. “How quickly you move up—or sometimes down—should be completely up to you.”
This is another nice, but completely fantastical, idea. No one gets to the top—or languishes in poverty on their own—isolated from larger public policy trends.
In real life, many aspects of America’s domestic public policy are devoted to maintaining the wealth of the uppermost classes. Rich Americans benefit from an unusually regressive tax system and trade agreements that selectively hurt working-class professions, leaving wealthier jobs protected.
While tax breaks for the wealthy are diligently maintained, policies meant to help working and middle class people—like the minimum wage, or Medicaid, which many Americans rely on for long-term care—are left to atrophy or are viciously slashed.
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research,has dubbed this phenomenon the Conservative Nanny State. And it works best when people don’t notice it and go on believing that our fates are solely in our own hands.
3. “She needs to know that the rules are the same for everybody. That although she may have to work harder than many of us, she needs to know that she has a fair shot at making it in this country.”
But the rules aren’t the same for everyone, Mr. Cantor.
Consider how rigorously public assistance for low-income people is policed. Welfare, food stamp, and unemployment insurance fraud is heavily, and often pointlessly, policed and fiercely punished. Food stamps and welfare (or what remains of it) are vigorously means-tested.
Compare this with the bailouts for Wall Street firms, with no provisions to track how the money is spent or if it is responsibly used, and tax breaks for the rich, with no evidence that the benefits trickle down.
4. “America is a special place and different than any other place on Earth. Here’s an illustration. He was amazed how differently entrepreneurs are regarded in Europe, how opportunity seemed limited, how existence seemed dull, and how hope was missing.”
Ah, yes the blasted hellscapes of Western Europe, where people describe themselves as far happier than their American counterparts and are certainly better cared for, if life expectancy is anything to go by.
American conservatives and business elites love to bash Europe, where the welfare state is much stronger and labor unions often work in concert with business and government. But this more equitable balance of power seems to be producing some very positive results. Income inequality, for example is far lower in most European countries.
Perhaps Cantor’s supposed “Stanford MBA student” only spoke with other business elites—not with the vast majority of the population who seem to really like a governmental system that doesn’t leave you to rot when you get ill and helps support you when the job market is bleak.
5. “Pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream.”
Cantor appears to be talking about Obama’s stated desire to raise income tax levels on affluent Americans to their Clinton-era levels. Polling shows that such tax hikes are popular among almost every demographic group, including Republican voters. And this isn’t recession-inspired wealth-bashing—these trends have been running strong for years.
What’s more, higher taxes aren’t a way of “pitting Americans against one another.”
As Elizabeth Warren recently argued: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.”
Americans just want rich people to pay their fair share, and most people likely wouldn’t even want to return tax rates on the wealthy to their 1950s levels. That isn’t cruel or arbitrary. That’s just giving something back to the society that has allowed these people to thrive.
As Think Progress noted, Cantor’s speech includes no policy proposals to address income inequality (although they have some good ones). He provides no data to back up his claims. Instead, he just expresses the conservative movement’s irrational conception of the American economy.
Cantor’s speech is the embodiment of the conservative movement’s intellectual poverty. If this is the best conservatives can do, it only highlights the fact that Occupy Wall Street cannot hope to pressure right-wing politicians. They should concentrate their pressure on the center-left.
Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher living in Philadelphia and a former Campus Progress staff writer. His work has been published by the American Prospect, Alternet, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Stranger, and the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.
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