Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I'd modify that slightly for this presidential election year and say, we tell ourselves stories in order to vote. Which is why Mitt Romney maintains a huge lead in the polls among blue-collar white men.
The differential is staggering. Non-college-educated white men give Romney a 37-point advantage over President Barack Obama according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. Why would struggling wage earners support a candidate who would give tax cuts to the top 1 percent, a group that controls 43 percent of the wealth in the country, while adding to the tax burdens of people at the lower end of the income scale? Racial issues aside — and I'm not discounting the significant "black president" factor, it comes down to the power of myth and story.
White men have been fed the myth of the rags-to-riches, self-made man, the quintessential American narrative that says hard work and perseverance will equate to success. The idea cemented in the male cerebral cortex is that people who start from nothing can work themselves from the Horatio Alger mailroom to the corner office.
The unflattering flip side of this is that failure is a character flaw. If you don't succeed, you didn't work hard enough. As the story goes, anyone who takes government help falls into this category.
A recent Romney campaign ad draws on this theme by accusing Obama of trying to take the work requirement out of welfare. (A false assertion, by the way.) As CBS News' Bob Schieffer explained, this ad is designed to shore up support among white working-class men. In shades of Willie Horton, the ad offers a racially divisive subtext while reinforcing the self-made-man corollary that people who need government assistance are lazy moochers.
Actually, here's the story of today's economy that blue-collar workers should take to the voting booth: Our striving Horatio Alger hero watches helplessly as his company is bought out by a private equity firm that then saddles it with debt, cuts wages and worker benefits, outsources jobs overseas and leaves the company foundering after having made a fortune for investors.
Americans are all about hard work. We've increased productivity by 80 percent since 1979, but with almost no corresponding income gains for average workers. It nearly all flowed to the top 1 percent. Shhh, don't tell the working stiffs.
Obama does better among white women and minority voters because they never bought into the self-made-man myth. After all, for them, no matter their work ethic or ability, longstanding societal barriers stood in the way of climbing the economic ladder. It took antidiscrimination and fair-pay laws to wrench open opportunities. Government was an essential player in making the marketplace fairer.
This idea that people succeed entirely on their own is a fallacy that doesn't even survive scrutiny in Romney's ad exploiting Obama's faux pas on small business owners. The "you didn't build that" attack ad features Jack Gilchrist, the owner of Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, N.H. In it, Gilchrist responds with indignation to Obama's statement, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else did that." Gilchrist retorts that in fact, he and his family built their business. Which is certainly true as far as it goes, but it also turns out Gilchrist relied on government loans and contracts to expand and thrive. So, too, were the "no government help" businesses featured at a Romney campaign stop in Tampa reliant on government work.
The self-made man myth needs to be exploded. It dangerously serves the interests of the top 1 percent. Hard work is an important component of success, but it's not the only one. Government plays a pivotal role, from making college affordable to protecting workers from exploitation.
Today there is less social mobility in America than in hidebound Europe. But America's rags-to-riches narrative smothers the American reality, resulting in powerless workers voting for politicians who will keep them that way. It's a story with a very bad ending.