Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Elitist Trope

In my previous post I called the recent exchange about McCain's houses essentially meaningless. This may seem odd as this is clearly a dangerous moment for both campaigns. Regardless, it IS meaningless because the whole thing centers on which candidate is the "true elitist" in this race. The answer, as always, is that BOTH candidates are members of the elite by definition. After all, they are the two major party candidates for the office of President of the United States of America. This is not a job that just anyone can get.

"But we're not talking about who's a member of the elite. We're talking about who understands what it's like to be a common American!"

Well, so what? Most candidates for President aren't going to be able to "feel your pain" and the ability to do so is hardly a qualification for the job. Neither Teddy Roosevelt nor Franklin Delano Roosevelt had any idea what it was like to be poor, middle class, or even upper-middle class. They had been born to great wealth and privilege. That didn't exactly hamper their ability to get the job done.

If understanding the plight of the common American were so important then we wouldn't have THESE two candidates running for office.

While it is true that Obama didn't come from wealthy background, he does have the background of a cultural elitist - his childhood was far from common, he's a graduate of Columbia and Harvard, he's been a professor at the University of Chicago. His parents were hardly common people either. (How many children have a parent who was a university professor? That is an elitist trait right there!)

It's true that he has been among poor people. But does he really know what it means to be poor? Being poor isn't about lack of money - that's a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. Many students struggle through their college years on Ramen noodles but they know that better days are ahead. And if they had better days behind them then the temporary poverty is more of an adventure than a state of mind. And the "starving artist" whose parents are rich lawyers? They're play acting at poverty, attempting to gain street cred with other elitist snobs.

But those of us who have grown up poor (whether it be "working-class poor" as I was or something worse) know that being poor is a state of mind. It's about fear of where the next dollar is going to come from and a certainty that there will never really be enough of them. This certainty is hard to overcome. But even if one does achieve success there is still that nagging fear that somehow it will all be taken away. If you haven't lived with that fear and with those doubts then you've never really been poor. If you've ever been certain that all avenues to a decent life have been cut off, then you have been truly poor. And I don't care how many years you spend as a community organizer (WTF?) you are NEVER going to understand it.

(One could argue that Michelle Obama knows what it's like to have been middle class. But I don't really think this kind of thing transfers from spouse to spouse. Plus, attending Princeton and Harvard, followed up with an impressive career in the Chicago legal and political world she hardly seems common.)

The situation with John McCain is even more elitist. He is (famously) the son and grandson of full Admirals. He attended the Naval Academy where he was apparently one of the BMOCs. (Don't be fooled by the low class ranking - that rarely means much outside of the academic world, except perhaps as a way to puff up one's resume.) After that McCain became a Naval Aviator, and don't you dare call them mere pilots! In short, McCain has been born and bred as part of our warrior elite. And to top it off his second wife is fabulously wealthy. (Seriously, McCain can't remember how many houses they own!)

No, neither of these men have common backgrounds.

And that has been the norm in recent decades. In 2004 we had the blue-blooded John Kerry taking on the even bluer-blooded George W. Bush. The 2000 election featured the privileged son of a wealthy US Senator taking on the even more privileged son of a wealthy US President.

In 1996, however, we had a rather extra-ordinary election - neither man had an elite background. Both had worked their way up from the bottom, and it seemed that both remembered what it had been like to be poor. (Although Clinton was MUCH better at actually connecting with people than Dole.) In 1992 we had Clinton versus another son of a wealthy US Senator. Perhaps the real reason Bill picked Al to be his running mate was so he could appeal to the much coveted Children of Wealthy US Senators demographic. And 1988 saw Bush against a Harvard educated lawyer who was the son of a Harvard educated doctor.

So in the last six Presidential elections we've had two candidates who could credibly claim to have non-elite roots. In other words, the McCain/Obama spat about who is more "in touch" with the common person doesn't really mean a thing, and by our selection of candidates over the last 20 years we should all understand that it doesn't mean a thing.

Incidentally, I don't mind these elitist guys running for office. But what DOES piss me off is when they try to act like they're the salt o' the earth. Kerry SHOULD have trimmed his finger nails in 2004 just because of all the hands he would shake. But he SHOULDN'T have done it to hide his fondness of playing classical guitar. And Algore's story about ploughing the back 40 in 2000 was the lamest part of that exceptionally lame campaign. The current President Bush has also reworked his own public persona. In his first political campaign he got his ass handed to him by an opponent who billed Bush as an out-of-touch elitist from Harvard and Yale. (Yeah, that dumb Texan act is just that. Amazingly almost all of his opponents have fallen for it.) Just 'fess up to the background, guys. Most likely your opponent will be every bit the elitist SOB that you are.


Pastor_Jeff said...

Heh. And yes.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Wait a minute. Only an elitist would use a word like "trope"!

Icepick said...

I AM a member of the intellectual elite. My IQ is at least 150. (Yeah, I know, it doesn't show too often these das.) Also I have studied and read a great deal through the years, thus becoming better educated than the average bear. I'm now old enough that I'm no longer going to pretend otherwise. I just didn't start out with a silver spoon in my mouth.

AnastasiaBeaverhausen said...

Outis, I am voting for you!

Michael Reynolds said...

I am genuine trailer trash turned elitist. Actual trailers in the deep south no less. On a bayou. I learned to swim in water coated with mullet feed.

Your point about poverty is exactly right. I can never feel economically safe. My solidly middle class wife never feels truly endangered.

peter hoh said...

I've been proposing a constitutional amendment that would prevent Yale and Harvard grads from hogging the presidency.

Icepick said...

Peter, I can't support that, since I'm not opposed to elitists. However I would be quite happy with an amendment that would prevent idiots from hogging the presidency.