Who Built What? Diving Deeper Into ‘We Built This’ Campaign Rhetoric

Emily Corwin / NHPR

Jack Gilchrist at his home

The three words of what has become Governor Romney’s campaign slogan, “We Built This,” are hard to avoid these days.

One could argue they exemplify a political rhetoric that pits business-loving Romney supporters against government-loving supporters of President Obama. And although “we built this” has become a rallying cry for the right, we found that even New Hampshire businessman Jack Gilchrist — who has become the face of the slogan — has had enough of the divisive tactics.  So has long-time free-market economist, Brian Gottlob.  So what’s behind the We Built This slogan, and how much do entrepreneurs really relate?

A couple days after President Obama said “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” in Roanoke, Virginia, the Romney campaign dispatched a video crew to Jack Gilchrist’s Metal Fabricating business in Hudson, N.H. They had used his business for campaign events before, and knew he would be sympathetic. In the advertisement they came out with, Gilchrist asks President Obama, “Why are you demonizing us” for building a business?

And Gilchrist says he does feel demonized by President Obama’s comments about businesspeople. And he isn’t alone. In fact, he’s received almost 400 sympathetic emails after recording the campaign ad, and then speaking at the Republican Convention.  Why?

Brian Gottlob is the principle of PolEcon, and an economist in New Hampshire. He says Romney’s rhetoric is effective at mobilizing business people, because it targets a common quality.

“Business people, entrepreneurs, have to have a lot of self-reliance, they have to be very confident, they put in a lot of hours,’ he says. “So if you want to incite them, a great way to do that is to suggest that they have succeeded for a reason other than their own initiative.”

Let’s take a historical detour here

University of Maryland historian, David Freund, says the rhetoric from this campaign runs much deeper.  It starts with the fact that, throughout American history, “a lot of people could come to the U.S. from modest origins and do well for themselves.” This fed an identity a self-reliance upon which the “we built this” rhetoric is built.

But then, thanks to the New Deal, the G.I. bill, and other post-depression federal programs that proliferated between the 1940s and 1960s, both Republican and Democratic administrations created what Freund calls “a large interventionist state.” The resulting programs gave birth to a large middle class after World War II. But still, he says, “the beneficiaries of these programs were really invested in the idea that the thing that made them more successful was their own hard work.”

Since the 1930s – and particularly during the racial angst of the 1970s and 1980s, Freund says, it became politically expedient to frame the small amount of resources going to the underprivileged and minorities as “welfare.” Meanwhile – according to Freund — the “enormous amount of resources going to the working class, the middle class,” like the home mortgages, which “the government redesigned and propped up,” were intentionally masked, and marketed as “protecting markets, unleashing markets, that kind of rhetoric.” So now, Freund says, that created the impression that the only thing the American government does is hand out welfare checks to the needy.

Freund says today, he sees the consequence of this masking rhetoric in his history classes.  College students just don’t understand the role institutions play in their lives. And if they don’t know what the government does, how can they – we – participate effectively in our democracy?

But back to New Hampshire

Brian Gottlob is a long time free-market economist, so he’s all about maintaining a lean government.  But he, too, is worried about the effects of rhetoric that “drives a wedge” between business interests and the government.  Believe it or not, Gottlob is nostalgic – almost longing – for the economic recession of the early 1990’s. Back then, he says, New Hampshire’s economy took an even hard hit than it has recently. But, he says, that didn’t stop government and business interests from working together to solve problems.

“They came up with an adjustment to the tax structure that broadened business taxes,” introducing the Business Enterprise Tax, which “captured a lot more businesses,” Gottlob says. “I think we have those issues now, but I don’t see a willingness or an interest in sitting down and saying ‘how do we work these out?’”

The surprising thing is, even Jack Gilchrist – whom you might call a mascot of the Romney campaign – is tired of the campaigns’ divisive, unproductive rhetoric. “When we peel off the layers of that misinformation, we’re really not very far apart,” Gilchrist says. “There’s not a lot of way righties and way lefties out there. So we need to be reasonable, and we need to make conversation with each other. Not talking points.”

Gilchrist keeps a folder in his email inbox called “haters.” In it, there are more than 400 angry emails, mostly from supporters of President Obama. Gilchrist has written back to every single one.

And most of the time, he says, he finds a middle ground.


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