It happened in the little places. It happened at a construction company in Pennsylvania, at a parish in Florida, at a marina in Maryland. The meetings were held at the back of pickup trucks, on church sidewalks after services, in small restaurants where the beer is cold and the steaks are hot, but there are no tablecloths and the wine list isn’t really up to date.
Because it started in little places, the pundits missed it. Maybe President Obama’s comment about “clinging to their guns and Bibles” was the beginning. Just a snub, a little jibe at the expense of people who didn’t vote for him anyway, people who are stuck in their ways. People who do not have power anymore. It is a new day, and we had the election and they lost. Power has its perquisites. If the I.R.S. sits on the applications for their 501 (c)(4) applications, what are they going to do anyway? And when that game was discovered, and Lois Lerner’s computer lost its memory, what’s the harm? Nobody’s really going to object to that anyway.
And the Great Recession. C.E.O.’s of lots of small banks went to prison. Little guys who couldn’t possibly mount a defense against the amassed powers of the government of the United States. But not a single C.E.O. of a large financial institution was prosecuted, nobody who had the money to hire skilled lawyers and subpoena witnesses that might have implicated anyone in Washington. So the thousands of mid-level bankers and lots of others—who knew how government regulators had pressed for more lending—started to wonder.
And the man who managed a truck fleet before the recession, and now, nine years later, he is still in his “survival job” at one-third his prior pay. He started to wonder, too, if our country really has the best recovery strategy, or not. The fellow who used to manage construction crews is now a building inspector and struggling to keep his home till his kids finish college and move out. He knew we could do better.
That line, “You didn’t build that.” It rallied the masses and told them it was O.K., even cool, to disrespect the people who saved their own money, bought or built a business, and risked it all for years to make a living for themselves and hire others into meaningful rewarding work. There were more of them than the speaker ever imagined, and they took note. Not so much the high-tech billionaire but the guy or gal who worked like hell for years, treated people well, built a reputation as well as a business. They remembered that line, even years later.
Then there were the people who looked at the 4.9 percent unemployment rate and knew that did not mean what it would have meant a decade ago and that millions are working part-time jobs, or off the books, or stuck in a job they really don’t like, but it pays the bills. The kids who graduate from high school with good grades, and apply to community college only to be told that they need a year of remedial courses before they can earn college credits, suddenly knew that something is wrong. Nine students in the nation’s largest school district proved that union rules were placing the worst teachers into the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, denying them their constitutional right to a decent education, but no civil rights leader came to their cause, and the Justice Department opened no investigation. Their lives didn’t matter.
The people who always suspected that they wouldn’t get to keep their health plan, or their doctor, found out they were right after all. But the business owner will keep his payroll below 50 workers rather than deal with Obamacare and the costs that grow faster than the business and will eventually kill it. Just one more government-imposed inefficiency, just one more set of regulations, like so many others.
Yesterday, they voted, never realizing, even among themselves, that there were so many of themselves, in all those little places.
Joseph J. Dunn is the author of After One Hundred Years: Corporate Profits, Wealth, and American Society. He writes frequently on the role of business in American society.