In 2008, many Democrats were struggling to come to grips with why lower income and working class Americans were so unwilling to support the party platform that most closely aligned with their economic interests. The folks whose parents were Reagan Democrats in 1980 were still, stubbornly and inexplicably, swing voters nearly thirty years later. When some of those Democrats asked candidate Barack Obama why, he (infamously) gave an answer long on thoughtful academic substance and short on political style. Bitter folks clinging to guns and religion were anchored around Mr. Obama’s candidacy for the duration; they cling there to this day, in the political felony charge of elitism.
When I was growing up, to be elite was a good thing. My best friend and I from elementary school were focused on joining the Army’s elite; he made it to the goal when he made it to the Rangers. Americans loved the elite; athletes, warriors…winners of all stripes. We even liked elite criminals like Lex Luthor, elite monsters like Jason, and elite scoundrels like Gordon Gecko. We identified with the elite, and we recognized their rights over the common; we knew John Rambo was elite and therefore correct in his dispute with an obviously less accomplished (and fat) rural sheriff in First Blood.
But it seems like the rules have changed, at least a little. Maybe it is America’s growing preoccupation with wealth; maybe it is America’s growing ability to import only the worst old European habits. To be elite now, and be considered legitimate, one must have earned their money in one of a very few ways. Making a killing on Wall Street, socially acceptable. Working for thirty years on a production line and retiring with a nice pension, job-killing elitist handout. Earning a handsome return on stock options by laying off part of your corporate workforce, intelligent business success. Making a killing acting in the movies after a decade waiting tables, offensive and tawdry.
Of course the best way to be an elite in the United States, and get away with it, is to born into wealth and then use some of that birthright to make more wealth. The first million, they say, is always the hardest to earn…unless Daddy makes the cash for you. On the other side of the coin, if one comes from a lower middle class background and earns a quality education on merit, one might be considered an elitist. Especially, as seems the case in 21st Century America, if that person actually expresses the fruits of that quality education. Science, logic, reasoned argument, and intelligence seem to be the greatest expressions of the low caste in American politics. To be educated; to attempt to explain one’s point without making the further attempt to confine the explanation into a 15 second soundbite, has been made into the height of rudeness in today’s political America.
We don’t like knowledge anymore, and we really don’t like those know-it-all’s that inflict it upon us. And what is worse…what is really galling to some, is when someone we don’t expect, lectures us on something we thought we understood. Some would call it racism, but I am not playing that card; average Americans were not prepared, by anything in the media or entertainment worlds, for a black man to explain our democracy. Mitt Romney we know; he works in the bank and chair’s the church’s youth ministry committee. He is always in our business, but we know how to ignore him (and how to get him to do all our committee work). John McCain we knew quite well; we last saw him in black socks and bermuda shorts, screaming at our kids to get off his lawn.
This Obama character; we Americans don’t really know him. Most of us haven’t been to college, or haven’t been in many years, or haven’t attended class with our eyes open, or don’t want to recall the droning, preachy, over-explained lectures that Dr. Obama gave. And Dr. Obama didn’t look like us anyway. That our current President experienced life at the same income levels as we did is not as important as how different that life was. When Obama’s elite education and scholarship are on display they appear very different to us…almost foreign. His story is tailor-made for America, a real pull oneself by the bootstraps meets overnight sensation yarn. But we don’t trust that kind of success anymore.
We have, all of us, become cynical. It is the price a nation pays as it ages. We have, in a not too distant past, accepted great thinkers and great doers in the White House who had humble beginnings, regardless of ideology; most of the Founding Fathers fit the description, as did men like Lincoln, Hoover, Truman, and Reagan. We accepted them because we believed that America was a nation advanced in a way that Europe and her intertwined noble class could never be. In America, one could achieve elite status and enjoy all of the privileges and responsibilities so entailed, regardless of the home to which we were born.
In much the same way that many may dislike President Obama’s policy choices and platform, I dislike Mitt Romney’s record and his promises. I will admit to looking down my nose at him, not because of his wealth, but because he has demonstrated no ability to put on the shoes, as it were, of his fellow man. At least that is, when his fellow man gets his shoes at Pay-Less. But I won’t vote against Mitt Romney because he is wealthy, just as I hope you won’t vote against President Obama because he is intelligent. I will simply argue that the latter quality might be a better determinant for the office than the former. As elected leaders go, I think that the President of the United States ought to be elite.
The Rational Middle is listening…