Sorry to go all rhetorician on your ass, but one of the most misused terms in this past election was ‘businessman.’ I’m not Arthur Miller, believing sad tales of soulless good guy salespeople to be the whole sum of executive level experience in American business, but the unexamined zeal with which many wanted to give Romney the presidency because of his business background was disturbing, and the Obama folks’ plans to swiftboat that idea was smart (even if it borrowed heavily from an earlier campaign by Ted Kennedy).
We tend to have one enduring image of a businessperson. While that image might well change form a bit based upon the individual’s ideological leanings and experience, there are a couple of traits that cross these boundaries: businesspeople are viewed as being relentlessly efficient, organized, cut-to-the-chase types who have a far better understanding of organizations than the rest of us lowlifes. Those on the left we might view these characteristics angrily or with disgust (those ruthless, inhuman capitalists), while those on the right might view these favorably (that so-and-so really knows how to get things done), but in either case we tend to view these traits as key components of the Platonic ideal of businessperson.
This election hopefully helps us challenge those notions, and perhaps put to rest the idea that somehow Obama is an anti-free enterprise President, or that being pro-business means simply that we eliminate all regulations and laws. These two campaigns offered different visions of American corporatism, ones that I think defy some of the stereotypes that each of the two campaigns’ supporters have, and that definitely challenge the most cherished beliefs about what we think businesspeople are.
The best example of this vision came in the organization of the two Get Out The Vote (GOTV) movements. Governor Romney was hypothetically the candidate of small government, a corollary of which is a loathing of big bureaucracies, which are almost invariably portrayed as governmental. There’s a lot of truth to that connection – stories of inept, unresponsive government bureaucracies are not just apocryphal urban myths, despite Al Gore’s solid efforts to streamline them under the Clinton administration – but the idea that bureaucracies could exist outside of government seems to be impossible to the ‘drown government in a bathtub’ hardliners.
Additionally, the idea that someone whose experience is mostly in government could create a small, streamlined, decentralized, responsible organization was inconceivable to opponents of the Obama administration. Obama’s personal experience as a community organizer was mocked, when in reality that experience seems to have fostered a push out the power approach to creating a big organization that took the best aspects of what Karl Rove did for George W. Bush (get your friends to the polls, whether they be from your children’s school, from your church, from work, or whatever) with a penchant for technological expertise. Obama’s campaign team thoroughly vetted an open-source, decentralized approach to getting volunteers information that would have been the envy of many small tech companies, an approach that is entrepreneurial in all the best senses of that word. Obama’s GOTV system was vetted and tested and pounded and tested again and realistically and meaningfully explained and designed to have multiple points of failure, all hallmarks of a very specific approach to technology that is far more Google and Reddit (and Amazon) than it is Microsoft or Apple.
The Romney campaign took the opposite approach, which fits Romney’s personal predilections and executive, managerial, and leadership styles. From reports that came out quickly after the election, mostly drawn from volunteers who tried to work for the campaign, the software was untested, clunky, came with useless training materials that were more sales-oriented than devoted to actual utilization of the software, and centered exclusively in Boston. The software was top-down management at its worst: a system developed with generic software that wasn’t tailored at all, with a consulting firm calling that shots that had no proven track record of developing this type of system. Management got bonuses, and those on the ground – there because they believed in his candidacy and wanted to participate in the political process, about the most American ideals I can imagine – spent the day in frustration, unable to help.
When the candidates talked about two competing visions of America, they left out the details as to how those visions competed, but this Romney campaign clusterfuck (and corresponding home run by Obama’s group) perfectly characterizes the two. Romney’s group was full of bluster – they bragged about how powerful the system was on the day it started to explode – and light on actual work, while Obama’s was quietly deadly, working below the scenes at a highly decentralized level to powerfully work with where people are at.
As a Romney volunteer notes, their campaign software reveals just how far from the ideal Romney’s version of business actually is: “one of the most basic tenets of conservatism is a loathing and mistrust of big government and bureaucracy. Project ORCA was the embodiment of big government, top-down management” (http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2012/11/09/romneys-get-out-the-vote-fiasco/). That vision is not Romney’s – his Bain style of business is not to build working systems that meet people’s needs, which is how Adam Smith envisioned the invisible hand working – but instead it’s designed to enrich his friends, and himself, without much concern for what people actually need.
As blogger Wonkette noted, “thank goodness the Republicans nominated a savvy businessman with so much private sector management experience to run this thing. Just imagine how badly it would’ve gone under the direction of some hippie community organizer!” (retrieved from http://wonkette.com/489423/romneys-expensive-computer-get-out-the-vote-effort-explodes-miserably-like-rest-of-romney-campaign) Wonkette’s description clues us into just how different the two campaigns are, and the true competing visions: not between pure capitalism and communism, but between visions of how the free market works best, and how it works best for people. Obama’s bailing out Wall Street doesn’t meet that vision, and his bail out of the car companies (actually, they were both Bush’s, but the right-wingers seem to forget that) only fits into this equation if we look at the changes that they subsequently made, but the campaigns speak volumes to the two campaigns’ abilities to function in the real world, and the way they responded to the challenges of big organizational movements.
My hope is that Republicans take an honest look at what failed, and change their definition to one that fits with what I believe is the best of America, our ability to problem-solve despite our ideological biases. That’s what the free market is supposedly about, right? In that context, Obama’s election was a triumph of the free market.