Herman Cain, American Dreamer

by MARK T. HARRIS

As a relative unknown seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Herman Cain’s recent success in the polls has taken the field by surprise.

It shouldn’t. Since entering the primary race, Cain had an advantage over other Republicans in that he just hadn’t had the time in the spotlight necessary to offend too many people too much.

Obviously, he’s been working on that. Cain’s dismissal of the Occupy Wall Street protests, telling everyone who is not rich or employed they’ve only got themselves to blame, says much not only about the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, but also the motivational industry he inhabits as a speaker, writer, and radio host.

The latter is the world of corporate workshops and self-improvement programs where business speakers and self-help coaches tout such valuable skills as the secrets to mental toughness, the art of closing the deal, how to turn lemons into lemonade, the secrets of the super achievers (there are always lots of secrets), and how to manifest your greatest destiny and achieve outrageous success.

In other words, it’s a world where banalities are packaged as super-hyped-up gems of insight and genius. Most of this comes down to having goals and thinking about them. Also, believing in yourself is good. In this spirit, in 1995 Cain trademarked the phrase, The Hermanator Experience, to describe the wonderfully joyous happening of coming into contact with this pitchman’s various educational products.

Clearly, it’s difficult to take seriously any professed political thinker who indulges in such nonsense. Imagine if Noam Chomsky’s worldwide fame inspired him to start promoting his lectures as The Noamanator Experience. Obviously, Cain is hustling inspiration all the way to the bank. Now he has discovered what, in motivational industry vernacular, might be described as the world’s greatest self-promotion strategy, one in which you win even if you lose. It’s called running for president.

You, Yes, You! It’s All Your Fault!
Of course, Cain’s right. The strategy works. From a relative unknown, Cain is now a national name, thanks to his not-so-secret strategy of self-promotion. This is unlikely to translate down the road into an election victory, or even a party nomination, despite his current popularity in the polls, but with the name recognition will invariably come more books, more endorsements, more speaking engagements, and—most of all—more money.

Currently, Cain charges $25,000 for an inspirational speech in which he dispenses his life’s wisdom on making it in America. That’s a lot of money for an afternoon’s work. Then again it must take rare skill to leave the non-rich feeling pumped up after sharing with them the awkward news that their low status is all their fault.

Actually, when Cain says to blame yourself if you’re not rich or employed, he’s just personalizing his larger “free-market” views. Blame the unions. Blame the minimum wage. Blame Medicare. Blame corporate taxes. Blame government regulations. If it weren’t for this litany of evils, Cain declares, market economics in all its unrestrained glory would solve all problems.

In this sense, Cain’s 9-9-9 economic plan is just more of the same. Here blame-the-victim politics gets translated into higher taxes for those who can least afford them. According to the Tax Policy Center, Cain’s proposal promises to provide the top 0.1% (those who earn more than $2.7 million) an average annual tax cut of nearly $1.4 million. That’s an increase of nearly 27 percent in after-tax income. But for middle-incomes families (those earning $64,000 to $110,000), the story’s not so upbeat. They can expect their taxes to rise by nearly five percent.

Cain’s economic sloganeering is designed to set him apart from other Republicans, without actually setting him apart from other Republicans. At least the gimmicky 9-9-9 plan makes it easy for Republicans to get their economic vision thing straight. Since Cain proposes a nine percent tax on personal income, it’s an easy leap to remember he also proposes a nine percent business tax! And, a nine percent federal sales tax! This is economics packaged like a convenience, a Groupon Deal of the Week redeemable at your nearest primary caucus.

There is a skewed logic to Cain’s blame-yourself advice to the jobless and non-rich. In his world of super-charged success, where the sky’s the limit for any individual willing to take charge of their life, unemployment and poverty are in the end just a failure of willpower and positive thinking.

But why shouldn’t Cain think this way? He grew up in the South, poor and black, went to school, educated himself and ably pursued a business career. Does that mean his particular life story with its personal triumphs now translates into a blueprint for national economic and political policy? Cain’s Horatio Alger view of the world might impress some mid-level corporate sales team held captive in a Marriot Hotel conference room on a Tuesday afternoon, but it can hardly explain or solve the economy’s larger problems.

Formula for Workers’ Self-Management?

In his 2001 book, CEO of Self, Cain describes how companies do well “when every person in every job feels fully empowered to be the best leader they can be in their respective roles.” In business, miracles apparently happen, Cain declares, “when everyone in the business feels that they are truly the CEO of their job and understand what part they play in the overall mission and goals of the business….”

That almost sounds like a formula for workers’ self-management, but not quite. In fact, it will be a long, lonely journey to find anything in Cain’s business products about the road to prosperity coming through social solidarity, as represented in Occupy Wall Street or through building a stronger union movement.

In fact, Cain has always veered in the opposite direction, opposing unions as an infringement on business. Sadly, there will be no uplifting stories in any of Cain’s books about how he, the highly paid executive, bucked management to champion greater benefits and wages for the underdog employees of Burger King or Godfather’s Pizza. Instead Cain’s story includes how earlier this year he traveled to Wisconsin in a show of support for Gov. Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights.

The Cain candidacy is another reason why Occupy Wall Street is happening. So many people have had enough of the hucksters and hustlers, the endless corporate lies and blame-the-victim politics that always seems to leave ordinary Americans at the short end of their bank accounts.

Cain is just one more of the privileged partisans of America Incorporated determined to steer the ship of state into the nearest iceberg. Indeed, while the nation awakens to a new era of activism and anger at America’s growing economic inequality, Republicans bicker with surreal detachment over who is the best champion of more tax cuts on wealth, more deregulation, more cuts in public expenditures, and more money to the world’s largest military.

Of course, personally Herman Cain, like Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman et al, has few worries over how it all turns out. As the crashing waves of unemployment and poverty wash higher and higher over the sinking ship of the American economy, these folks, insulated by wealth, can afford to quibble over who among them is the most obsequious servant of capital.

On that point at least they are all front-runners.

Mark T. Harris is a former Chicago-area writer who now lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to “The Flexible Writer,” fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). Website: www.Mark-T-Harris.com. Email: Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com.

Will Falk moved to the West Coast from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender.

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