President Obama certainly stuck his foot in it back in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13. Trying to explain that public infrastructure plays a role in successful businesses, he told the crowd: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." No surprise, then, when six weeks later the Republican National Convention -- led by vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan -- rocked with cries of "We built this!" Not the government! Us! How dare the Nanny State and its "central planning"-minded President take credit for the entrepreneurial know-how and personal zeal of America's real wealth-creators, you and me!
Well, actually Ryan is right. And Romney too. In saying "we built this," they express what Obama meant but failed to clearly say. The key to our success as a democracy lies in that crucial word "we." Yes, we built our firms and small businesses, built our families and communities, built our civic institutions and built our nation. But "we" doesn't mean "me" or "you." No one can say "I built this." Because we all know, as Mitt Romney reminded us again last night, that behind every me is a powerful we that includes me but also my supportive spouse, the parents who raised me, the children who inspired me, the pastors who preached to me, the educators who taught me, the good communitarians like Mormon minister Mitt Romney who gave me solace in bad times, and the venture capitalists like businessman Mitt Romney who gave my business a jump-start in better times.
In Romney one could actually hear the echo of Hillary Clinton: it really does take a village. Behind me stands a strong family, a helpful neighborhood, a nurturing community and a democratic society that secures the conditions for building a thriving business. "That's how it is in America," the nominee exclaimed, his Mormon faith glowing:
We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad. It is both how we live our lives and why we live our lives. The strength and power and goodness of America has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities, our families, our faiths.
President Obama could agree with every word, but might add one more phrase -- "and our civic institutions and the democratic laws we pass with and through our representatives." In a democracy, government is also part of the "us," along with family, neighborhood, church, community and civil society. In a democracy, government is not the enemy of "we," we are government.
The founding Declaration of Independence the Republicans rightly celebrate asserts that we are endowed with inalienable rights by the creator, but also says that "to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the government." It's called democracy and it is the key to our liberty. Government is not the enemy, it is us and part of what empowers us in realizing our rights, building our communities, establishing our businesses. Our citizenship makes us strong, not weak.
Perhaps the real contrast is not between Obama and Romney but between Romney and Ryan. For Ryan sometimes talks like a devotee of Ayn Rand. When he talks about we it sometimes feels like he has in mind that solipsistic slew of Nietzschean solitaries incarnated in Rand's protagonist Howard Roark (in The Fountainhead), the architect-hero who boasts "I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need...I am a man who does not exist for others."
But Mitt Romney exists for others and embraces community. He is no Howard Roark even if he picked one as his Vice President. So let's not argue with Ryan about whether "we built it" or the government built it. Let's remind ourselves that what makes America exceptional and Americans free is that when we talk about "we," it is John Dewey's "great community," the greatness of "we the people" to which we all belong: old-timers and new immigrants alike, regardless of race or religion or sexual orientation. America isn't mine or yours, it's ours.
And in a country conceived in liberty, government was never our enemy but the common instrument through which we pursue and realize our common goods and secure and extend our precious natural rights to all. Yes, we built this. Republicans and Democrats. White and Black people. Women and men. Straight and gay people. Legendary Founders and recent immigrants. We is "We the People of the United States," and our exceptionalism lies not in a war on government or a fading global empire but our deeply democratic character that refuses to pit citizens against their elected representatives and knows that "we" means "all of us."