Audentis Fortuna iuvat
A quick google search of the English translation “fortune favors the bold” reveals that Americans have an astonishing affinity for the phrase. It is the motto of no fewer than five US battleships, several different graduating classes from the US military service academies, and one college at Yale University. That said, contemporary Americans are less inclined to seizing fortune, being more interested in “fair” redistribution.
In the US, that existence of an identity crisis, which implicitly formed a crucial component of the 2016 election, is beyond doubt. Much of the analysis is predicated on a zero-sum understanding of success, and much of the debate is cast in terms of opportunity, while conveniently forgetting that the majority of opportunity is manufactured. A perfect example is found in an interview of Richard Ojeda, a West Virginian politician, from an Unherd article titled “Adventures in Trumpland:”
He [Ojeda] admires Bernie Sanders, the veteran leftist who so rattled Hillary Clinton, but insists he is not a socialist but a Democrat, instantly replying “JFK” when I ask for his political hero. “No-one owes us anything but we deserve opportunities. Why is it that two miles from my home you will bleed to death in a car crash because there’s no mobile connectivity? Why do kids here have to do homework in McDonalds because there is no broadband? I want to take care of the elderly, protect medicare, stop people putting their hands in the cookie jar for social security. We should help those who want a hand up, not a handout.
On the surface, Ojeda’s heart-strings-tugging talking points (children! elderly! dying people! Who could possibly object?!) are wonderful, but they are inherently identitarian. Earlier in the interview, he had said “When I graduated, it was dig coal, sell dope or join the army and 30 years later nothing has changed.” The tenor of his campaign is that his proposed constituents have become a dispossessed, victimized group. His talking points can be quickly summarized as “we don’t have nothing because someone done took it from us.” His solution: top down fixes.
The issue with the identitarians’ narrative about opportunity is that it is, in a broad sense, false. (The primary exception to Ojeda’s points is broadband and that is due to excessive regulations which are currently under repeal.) All of the examples chosen by Ojeda might be problems, but they are not indicative of lack of opportunity. Mobile service – which is also undergoing an expansion with the repeal of prior regulations – is not an opportunity as such. There is a conflation of lifestyle perks with opportunity as a general concept.
The choice to cast the discussion in terms of “opportunity” is particularly insidious. The rhetorical choice of “opportunity” is alongside “children” and “elderly” for its ability to deflect criticism – after all, no one wants to deprive children and the elderly. “Opportunity” rearranges the narrative to imply that a specific group, e.g. Ojeda’s voter base, are downtrodden victims in a rugby-esque scrum of life. They never even had a chance to get the ball, but they still wound up at the bottom of the pile. The sports analogy (even if borrowed from the English since rugby is slightly more violent than American football) is particularly important in understanding American identity politics because it has a clear-cut winner-loser dynamic. The American conceptualization of success and opportunity is entirely zero-sum; one person succeeds through another person’s loss.
The question underlying the populist rhetoric of Ojeda, as representative of larger group with a particular set of talking points, is whether institutions or people are responsible for their final outcomes. Ojeda’s background empathy pitch is that he is the grandson of a Mexican immigrant coal miner; this story, though, dovetails into the complaint that when he, the grandson, finished school thirty years ago, the coal pit was the first of his assumed options. This is part of the deprivation narrative as the implicit idea is that if his grandfather and father had had the “real” American dream, his own options would have been more along the lines of doctor, lawyer, banker, etc. But even that doesn’t hold up to critical scrutiny since all of the “opportunity” professions require university degrees, for which the army will pay; Ojeda clearly seized the opportunity because he is a retired major, a rank he could never have achieved without both undergraduate and graduate degrees. It is in the multigenerational aspect of the outcomes and opportunity argument that the communication breakdown over responsibility occurs.
In The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, Ludwig von Mises stated that missed opportunities are the primary reason working people dislike capitalism; it is the aspect where everyone starts out close to the same point, but person X rises further and higher through seizing opportunity while person Y, although possessing similar capabilities and background, stagnates. This is essentially what has occurred in among those most inclined to populism and identity politics.
Incidentally, Ojeda is exactly typical of person X in comparison to both his peers 30 years ago and the people he wishes to represent. In Mises’ analysis, he simplified the situation and imagined person Y accepting responsibility for all the lost and bypassed opportunities. In the modern world, the world of Ojeda and his ilk, though, there must be a third party – the government, society, “the system,” the market – that is responsible for the loss, which is often described as lack, of opportunity. It is the urge to offload, or to insist that there was an opportunity void, that populists and identitarians, who build platforms off an us-versus-them narrative, in America wish to exploit. The most concerning aspect of their narrative is that it conflates identity and opportunity, dividing the nation into oppressed and oppressors, victims and exploiters, successes and failures. This is dangerous because it undermines the US’ real identity as the land of genuine opportunity – which people must seize for themselves.
Mary Lucia Darst
More about this author