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J.D. Vance Shows How the Populist Right Adopted the Logic of 'You Didn't Build That'
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J.D. Vance Shows How the Populist Right Adopted the Logic of ‘You Didn’t Build That’

Companies don't give up their rights just because they take advantage of infrastructure or government benefits.

While running for reelection in 2012, then-President Barack Obama defended the progressive economic agenda of greater wealth redistribution with the now infamous line, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Republicans correctly skewered him for that proclamation because it was a deeply insulting remark to the countless entrepreneurs and critical institutions that protect private citizens and their property and have helped make America the most prosperous nation in history. That wasn’t a one-off gaffe from Obama, either, but a genuine reflection of his worldview. Remember the Life of Julia video, also from 2012? It told the story of a woman’s life entirely through the lens of her reliance on government programs. Conservatives recoiled in horror.

Yet, not even a decade later, in a troubling sign of growing authoritarian tendencies in the Republican Party, many on the political right are embracing the exact same logic toward a far more dangerous end. 

Last week, best-selling author, and all-but-declared Republican candidate for the Senate from Ohio J.D. Vance was interviewed by Tucker Carlson. When discussing regulating companies and the First Amendment, Carlson asked Vance how he responds to the argument that Google, as a stand-in for Silicon Valley broadly, is a private company. Vance responded stunningly: “I just don’t care.” 

For someone hoping to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, including its amendments, the remark demonstrates alarming ambivalence to what the document actually says.

Vance elaborated on his position by describing the various government initiatives from which Google, and presumably other tech giants, have benefitted. “They benefit from special government privileges, they take advantage of American infrastructure, and we have to treat them as if they are subject to American democracy,” Vance said.

He was less polite Monday on Twitter.

What Vance is trying to do is skirt a fundamental part of the Constitution as it pertains to constitutional rights, which is the state action doctrine. For the most part, unless you’ve been accused of a crime, your rights as an American are guaranteed as restrictions against—not entitlements to—government action. In short, if Google removes your video from YouTube or Walmart kicks your protest out of its parking lot, you don’t have a case under the First Amendment. In fact, the First Amendment is what protects Google’s and Walmart’s right to remove your speech from their property. 

Clear distinctions are drawn between private actors (regardless of their characteristics) and the state because private actors do not have the lawful authority to involuntarily deprive you of your rights and property. The government can put you in jail, or worse. Google can’t.

However, if the state action doctrine were so easily circumnavigated as Vance suggests, then it’s hard to see who among us would still benefit from the full protections of the Bill of Rights. Government privileges? Infrastructure? Most Americans have attended public schools and use the highways. Millions receive subsidized food, mortgages, student loans, health insurance, etc. This would also draw in businesses that benefit from intellectual property protections and people who receive Social Security. Congress has created countless subsidies and programs that confer special treatment to many sectors of the economy. Taking advantage of the ubiquitous impacts of our ever-growing government does not mean you forfeit your fundamental constitutional rights. 

Vance tries to draw a distinction between businesses of the size, scope, and nature of Google and “the restaurant down the street,” but fails to offer a novel explanation. He simply repeats that Google has benefitted from American infrastructure and other government action, as if there are no roads, water pipes, electrical lines, or internet networks leading to a restaurant. 

Vance raises the hot-button law known as Section 230 as an example of a special government privilege as a sufficient reason to ignore the state action doctrine. But here again he is, like so many conservatives angry about perceived slights from tech companies, dreadfully wrong. 

Section 230 literally applies to all providers and users of internet services. Former President Donald Trump, the man from whom Vance is so eager to seize the right-wing populist mantle, has invoked Section 230 to defend himself in court on multiple occasions. Americans don’t forfeit constitutional rights by using the internet, even though government institutions and laws helped create the internet we know today. 

It matters that Google is a private company because the rights it enjoys as a private entity are the same ones that protect all of us from aspiring authoritarians, regardless of from which side of the aisle they emanate. Eroding these rights for some weakens them for all.

What Vance and a growing number on the right are advocating is authoritarianism disguised in the red-meat tones of liberty and freedom. This brand of populism will only defend your freedom to do things the way they like. They will shamelessly use the “you didn’t build that” logic of progressives to stake a claim to your individual sovereignty and economic liberty while insidiously claiming to offer an alternative to the illiberal left. Vance and the like are hoping you just don’t care enough to notice.

Patrick Hedger is vice president of policy at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a nonprofit, nonpartisan taxpayer and consumer watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.