So, for reasons that I don’t understand, I got to thinking about the Ben Stiller movie Night At the Museum yesterday. Ben Stiller plays a failed inventor and entrepreneur who has trouble holding a stable job partly because he keeps investing so much of himself into failed business ventures. He is divorced, seemingly has no romantic life and fears he is losing the respect of his son. He wants to be a creative business visionary, but everybody else sees someone who is unreliable. He takes a job as a museum night security guard, but he does so as a surrender. It is a meaningless and stifling job guarding what don’t seem to need any guarding.
Lots of crazy stuff happens. The jobs turns out to be much more challenging and emotionally rewarding than he imagines but, on some level, that can be understood as a metaphor. Stiller’s character kept at his job. It didn’t have the money or status or creative fulfillment he hoped for, but it turned out those weren’t the only things that mattered. He got the respect of his son and the start of a relationship with a woman. Taking the job, sticking to it, and doing it to the best of his ability helped him earn dignity as well as a living. He didn’t have to be an inventor-entrepreneur to matter.
That got me thinking about the Republican “you built that” emphasis in the last election, with its seemingly obsessive focus on the travails and accomplishments of entrepreneurs and business owners. In a sense, this 2006 movie anticipates that obsessive focus on the entrepreneur. Stiller wants to “build that”. He can’t imagine another meaningful economic role. He either builds a business or he is nothing -and in choosing to take the security guard job, he feels like he is choosing to be nothing.
This has implications for how Republicans can talk and (at least as importantly) think about policy. Most Republicans no doubt have a great deal of respect for wage-earners. It would behoove them to talk more about the value and dignity of that work and the economic concerns of those workers. That doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs don’t deserve respect. It does mean that constant talk about business owners can start to sound like a lack of interest in, or contempt for everybody else.
Ted Cruz had an interesting gloss on the “you built that” talking point. The Atlantic quotes Cruz as saying:
One of the best slogans that came out of this campaign was, ‘You built that!’ I wish we could take a different tack. That was a slogan that was aimed at the 53 percent,” he explained. “It was aimed at business owners. It was aimed at people who already got there. I think their message should have been: You can build that.
There is something to what Cruz is saying. An excellent College Republican report noted that, even though many young people are eager to be entrepreneurs, they see the Republicans as the party of established business, rather than the party of those who hope to start their own business. Some of that has to do with how Republicans talk, and probably a lot has to do with the media that younger voters tend to consume. Many young people rarely hear what a Republican has to say unless the Republican’s comment is being lampooned.
But there is more to it than switching the language to be more about aspiration and a better media strategy. The Republicans should be the party that sticks up for entrepreneurs and points out that the interests of entrepreneurs overlap (though not perfectly) with the interests of non-entrepreneurs. But many people who are never going to start their own business and never earn very much above the median are going to work and pay their bills and raise their families. They aren’t merely a larval stage entrepreneur. They have built something too. They also have their own interests and their own concerns about access to health insurance and the trajectory of their wages among other issues. To the extent that Republicans sound like they are offering tax cuts on high-earners and relaxed regulations on business as the only solutions to the concerns of the lower-middle-class, Republicans will seem clueless even to some people who think highly of entrepreneurs.