"You Built That!" Reconsidered
Elizabeth Warren, Elon Musk, and the difference between Revenge and Justice
Ross Douthat responds to Monday’s Transom in today’s New York Times by invoking the Elizabeth Warren viral comments from back in 2011 — which seems forever ago, but you’ll still recall the theme:
In the context of that moment, as Douthat writes, this led to the familiar left-right strains of Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” and Mitt Romney’s “You built that!” response, but:
Nothing has been quite so consistent since. The Republican Party in the Trump era remained a mostly pro-business party in its policies but its constituencies and rhetoric have tilted more working class and populist, with many Romney Republicans drifting into the Democratic coalition. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party remains generally the party of regulation and higher taxation, but much of corporate America has swung culturally into liberalism’s camp. That process was well underway a decade ago, but it’s been accelerated by anti-Trump backlash, the more left-leaning commitments of big business’s younger customers and (especially) younger employees, and the relative ease with which the radical-sounding language of identity politics can be assimilated to corporate management techniques.
As a consequence, today’s G.O.P. is most clearly now the party of local capitalism — the small-business gentry, the family firms, what leftists like to call “patrimonial capitalism” — while its relationship with corporate America is increasingly complex.
I don’t know if this argument is constitutionally convincing when applied to something as crudely retaliatory-seeming as the DeSantis move. But it’s convincing at some level of distance.
For instance, when the Trump administration pushed through a tax on endowment income for wealthy colleges and universities, that was clearly not just disinterested policy; the goal was to reduce the special treatment offered to these institutions precisely because they have grown increasingly radicalized against conservatism in recent years. It was a political act, a punitive one, a version of what Domenech is describing: You take tax dollars from conservatives as well as liberals, so you can’t complain when the right notices you don’t seem to hire any conservative faculty and decides to take some of those tax dollars back. And while there were claims that this intention made the measure unconstitutional, few legal figures seemed to take them particularly seriously.
Likewise, if the inchoate right-left alliance against Big Tech ever brought trustbusting legislation to fruition, that legislation would be clearly motivated, in some sense, by a conservative desire to punish the big tech companies for certain high-profile transgressions. But it seems pretty unlikely that these motives — mixed together with others, of course — would be grounds for the courts to block, say, a Facebook breakup or a Section 230 repeal.
So while the specific details of the Disney gambit may not be upheld or replicated, the idea behind it is likely to live on, shaping conservative ambitions at the state and federal level alike. (Especially since, as we saw with the Chick-fil-A wars, liberals are ready to engage in the same tactics when the opportunity presents itself — though the cultural weakness of the right means there are fewer high-profile opportunities.)
Most likely, given the chaotic nature of conservatism at the moment, these anti-corporate gambits will be tactical more often than strategic, symbolic more often than transformative, and quite often just showy gestures to the party’s business-skeptical base that leave cozy relationships intact behind the scenes.
But it’s still a striking evolution, that the right that once disdained an “actually, we all built that” account of business success is now inclined to adopt its own version of that case. And while I don’t expect Elizabeth Warren to claim any kind of vindication, it’s proof that ideas can circulate and reappear sometimes in the last place that you’d expect.
I certainly appreciate Ross’s reaction. It strikes me, given the context that tomorrow’s book club is focused on Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic, is that one of the very important things that the right needs to avoid in this moment is a failure to understand the difference between revenge and justice. This is not about extracting some form of reparations bent from wanting to “own the libs”. This is about finding the just path forward, in a nation full of people with very different values, that results in a more perfect union.
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