By a sort of creeping, well-intentioned ignorance, too many Republicans have fashioned their party into a cult of upward mobility. Although slogans like Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise” have roots in Abraham Lincoln’s view that our natural right to productive flourishing must not be impeded by capricious and arbitrary rule, they come off as the cult’s latest incantation. Although economically-minded refomocons like James Pethokoukis often counsel growth-obsessed politicians to curb their enthusiasm, Bush and other possible reformocon allies remain obsessed with proving that stagnation and decline are, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, “a choice.”
There is something deeply wrong with the establishment GOP’s vision of upward mobility as the purpose of policy—something much more misguided than a belief that the wealthiest should always have lower taxes. All the nerdery in the world cannot comprehend that the American dream pertains far more to horizontal mobility than vertical mobility. As a people, we do not want an endless ascendance through bigger houses, better cars, and more entitled offspring. We want enough in the way of material things to range freely through space and time, unfettered by the burdens of the past—no matter how uncertain the journey, no matter how unknown or impermanent the destination.
Pioneers, not climbers, we Americans experience life through the lens of pilgrimage. If the reformocons take the time to contextualize their wonkery with some plainspoken anthropology—that is, explaining to American voters that they understand what their hopes and hardships actually are—they can speak with a newfound power to the feeling of hopeless fatalism that vexes us most today.