Commentary: Mind Your Own Business

Aug 16, 2017

As children we were all told by someone – another kid, a parent, a teacher – to “Mind your own business.”  Usually good advice, not always heeded, of course.  Kids who frequently didn’t mind their own business often grew up to become lawyers.  Just kidding.

In the phrase Mind Your Own Business the focus is usually on the word “mind,” or “own.”  Let’s focus for a bit on “business.”  If you work for someone, or own a company, what is your “business?”  This is not a trick question.  Sometimes your business is not what you think it is or not what it should be.

There is a great example in American economic history.  Railroads were a dominant industry for 100 years and they thought their dominance might go on forever.  Railroads thought they were in the RAILROAD business when actually they were in the TRANSPORTATION business.  They failed to adapt when air travel and highways improved.  Famous lines such as the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central went bankrupt.  The railroads that survived had gotten into the transportation business.

An example closer to home also illustrates the importance of knowing and tending to your business.  The University of Missouri, which is a world-class institution and a major economic driver for the entire state, not just central Missouri, found out the hard way what its business is.  It is not athletics, which are only shiny objects.  It is not even cutting-edge research.  It is UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION, which is all about numbers and therefore about recruitment and therefore about image and marketing.  The business is freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, as many as they can effectively educate.  When those numbers are down, the business suffers, even if the athletics are great and the research world-famous.

So it is with politics, and the answer to the “What is the main business?” question explains a lot about what’s currently going on.  Most people in Washington DC think they are in the GOVERNING business – making and carrying out laws.  Some people in DC think they know better.  They are actually in the POLITICS business, which is electing people to office and especially raising the billions of dollars necessary to make that happen.

There are a very few people in DC who know better still.  It’s not about governing.  It’s not even about politics.  It’s about the BRAND.    President Trump and his inner circle, who are most definitely not from DC, have figured out that what you DO is not nearly as important as what you ARE.  And in domestic politics when your business is what you ARE, then everything is defined by your brand.  You don’t have to have policy.  You don’t even have to have an agenda.  You just need slogans: Make America Great Again.  Fire and Fury.  Build the Wall.  Lock Her Up.  Repeal and Replace.

Establishment Republicans and Democrats are way behind the curve on this.  They minded their own business, all right.  And their businesses are failing.

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.