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Rise From Poverty, Don’t Glorify It

The motto of the Republican Convention in Tampa last week was “We Built It.” Speakers repeated the line (sometimes to excess), videos were played on the theme, signs and banners lined the convention center. By the end of the week, nobody present in Tampa could be unaware that during a speech earlier this year, President Obama claimed that small business owners didn’t build their businesses alone.

The GOP highlighted several speakers during the week that had inspiring stories of building small businesses out of nothing, who risked what little they had to build companies that would become employers. One speaker, Sher Valenzuela, appeared in the early evening on Tuesday and set the tone for the rest of the convention. Valenzuela and her husband (a second-generation Mexican-American), devastated by their son’s autism diagnosis, started a business in order to pay for his care.

Her husband learned his craft from a mail-order course while in the army, and took what he learned about sewing from this course and turned it into an upholstery  business that, fifteen years later, would employ more than 70 people in a 70,000-square-foot factory in their home state of Delaware. Her speech was inspiring and uplifting, exactly what the convention was hoping to accomplish with this relatively unknown candidate for Lt. Governor of a state they in all likelihood will not be able to win.

The next night, Paul Ryan also discussed his family’s rise from poverty. After his father passed away when Ryan was sixteen, his mother started a small business. He told the audience,

My Mom started a small business, and I’ve seen what it takes. Mom was 50 when my Dad died. She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison. She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. It wasn’t just a new livelihood. It was a new life. And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn’t just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my Mom is my role model.

Many of the GOP’s speakers from the three nights of the convention spoke about their family’s humble roots and their rise not only to positions of political power, but also to the role of small business owner and employer. The latter, being an employer, was valued more than that of being a politician, and those on stage made sure the audience was aware of that fact.

Contrast this with the speeches last night from the Democratic National Convention. Two speakers, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and First Lady Michelle Obama, also discussed the poverty of their upbringings. The difference between their speeches and that of Valenzuela and Ryan was that while the Republicans spent the evening discussing their rise from poverty, the Democrats dwelled on their former poverty. Castro and Michelle Obama could have spoken about their first jobs, their struggles (and triumphs), getting through college, the successes they’ve made of their lives, but they chose not to. While they both honored their parents’ sacrifices, which enabled them to have better lives, they did not discuss how they or their parents achieved personal success. Neither Castro nor Obama discussed any experiences in business, and Castro measured his success in terms of holding public office, but never explained how he came to occupy it.

The contrast between these four speeches is remarkable and they set the tone for both parties and their conventions. The Republicans went to extraordinary lengths to showcase their commitment to small business, personal responsibility and ingenuity. Democrats spent the evening making martyrs out of the poor without ever encouraging them to reach higher than their government-sponsored lots in life. Republicans showed themselves to be the party of making the poor rich, and Democrats are the party of the poor. Which will resonate more with lower-class voters?


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