Ordinary Folk for President?

Mitt Romney is mercilessly lampooned for being a snob.  Author Lee Siegal calls the former Massachusetts governor the “Whitest white man to run for president in recent memory,” by which he means an embodiment of a “retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America.”

President Obama, for his part, is often characterized as an aloof law professor so unable to relate to the unwashed masses that he must rely on a teleprompter.  Even the not-unsympathetic New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls the automaton-like Obama, “Spock.”  No feel-your-pain here; just sterile wonkiness.

Such caricatures speak to the value placed on our leaders’ ordinariness, or at least the perception thereof.  The ability to commune with “Joe Sixpack” supposedly tells us something important about those we elect, but it does nothing of the sort.  Consider the blue-blooded Franklin Roosevelt, an aristocrat par excellence, whose dogged progressivism so infuriated his well-heeled critics that he was accused of being a “traitor to his class.”  By contrast, Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a grocery store owner, crushed the British unions and ushered in an era of ruthless laissez-faire.  Pedigree was no predictor of policy preference in either case—or in any case.

What matters is not our leaders’ backgrounds or whether they seem like the chummy sort with whom we’d like to have a beer, but rather what their values are as evidenced by the policies they espouse.  Failure to recognize as much leads us catastrophically astray; we habitually fixate on a phantom elitism that provides no useful information about our leaders while ignoring a very real manifestation of exclusivity that threatens our democracy.

How so?

Economic disparities in the country are at Gilded Age levels.  The elite one percent of Americans possesses more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.  This might not be so bad if a rising tide was lifting all boats, albeit some faster than others, but it’s not: income in real terms for most Americans has been flat or falling for decades.  Meanwhile, levels of social mobility, long thought to compensate for our glaring inequality, now trail those in most industrial countries.

Our budding caste system has even infected that supposed exemplar of our meritocracy, higher education.  As the Economist magazine points out, 75 percent of the students at the country’s most prestigious colleges come from the richest socio-economic quartile; just three percent are from the poorest quartile.  This means that a student at an elite university walking around campus will have 25 times the chance of bumping into a rich classmate as a poor one.

Such stratification should not just worry bleeding hearts.  Democracy, as many have recognized, including our Founding Fathers, cannot survive when economic inequality becomes too severe.  John Adams spoke for Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and other Founders when he observed that when “economic power became concentrated in a few hands, then political power flowed to those possessors and away from the citizens, ultimately resulting in an oligarchy or tyranny.”

Yet, as the country marches towards the sort of tyranny that preoccupied Adams, we display a tortured fixation on bogus indications of our leaders’ elitism.  This is no coincidence; it’s by design.  As long as our elected officials’ merit is gauged by meaningless personal attributes as opposed to meaningful ones like worldviews, then attention can be diverted from the nefarious designs of the country’s true elites that seek to suck the country dry.

The right understands this well.  Conservative neo-feudal economic dogma—lowering corporate and high-end marginal tax rates and gutting social programs for the disadvantaged—serves the interest of very, very few, so attention must be diverted.  Which is why, for example, much ink was spilled on John Kerry’s windsurfing habits and “French” looks or, more recently, on Obama’s alleged predilection for teleprompters.

Marx had a name for the impact of this sort of trickery: False consciousness, or a clouded state whereby the exploited and oppressed do not clearly comprehend the instruments of their own oppression.  And how better to achieve this hazy state than by blaming a false elite for the machinations of the real elites?

Of course, the left also plays this game, as some critiques of Romney’s supposed snobbishness bear out, but not with the same gusto because progressives don’t need to—their policies require less subterfuge.  But the right must, since it offers only misery for most.  So expect more allegations of Obama’s haughtiness.  Rumor has it he even likes kale.

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