Am I the only one who finds the melodrama over Ann Romney’s social status to be preposterous? Let’s put aside the gender politics—even President Obama has chided his fellow Democrat, consultant Hilary Rosen, for remarking that this stay-at-home mom never worked a day, offensive to both feminists and traditionalists. Rather, let us concentrate on the class warfare implications of this latest political fumble. Is Mitt Romney simply out of touch with everyday citizens, isolated by his wealth from many middle-class American worries, as his naysayers would have us believe? These accusations came largely from Romney’s conservative detractors early in the campaign’s primary season. Now that many have turned their attention to the general election, as Romney’s opposition has dwindled to a couple of long-shots, liberals are joining in the jeering of Romney’s financial success.
Four years ago, it was the other way around. Right-wing talk radio hosts sang the same tune—the Obamas can’t relate to average voters, particularly in middle America. Barack and Michelle were too wealthy, too liberal, too elitist. Mitt has attempted to answer his critics by providing us with personal examples of his blue-collar connections. After all, he does have “some friends who are NASCAR team owners,” as he assured the grassroots fan base recently. Clearly, Mitt failed to realize what makes the NASCAR community tick, but his attempt shows that he realizes he must make an effort to improve his image in the heartland. Supposedly, the McCains (and particularly the Palins) were much more clued in to what average Americans were going through in 2004.
In the 2004 presidential campaign, conservatives attacked John Kerry, a Massachusetts moderate, for his riches and famously well-to-do wife and heiress to the Heinz ketchup fortune. In 2000, Republicans said Al Gore did not have his finger on the common man’s pulse. His Democratic primary competitor Bill Bradley was quick to agree. At the same time, Democrats argued that George W. Bush was the pinnacle of privilege, having been raised in a wealthy and powerful family and an inheritance that included an opportunistic political career passed down from his Skull and Bones father.
Both sides of the political spectrum claim to stand up for the interests of the common folk against the insulated ruling class that has subverted the political process. Well-read conservatives will cite Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America And What We Can Do About It, a favorite among the academic leaders of the Tea Party movement that frames the American struggle as one between the majority—an essentially conservative, bourgeois, religious working class—and the socially liberal political elite who rule them. The left has its own narrative—the “top one percent” run this country, while the workers, consumers, and everyday Americans are robbed blind by an unholy alliance between the biggest corporations and Washington, DC.
Both sides have more overlap with one another than they care to acknowledge. While there may be some truth to their respective analyses, it is far more befuddling that they continue to sling mud at one another’s politicians while ignoring the plain truth about their own. We could admire Obama’s social activism without qualification if we ignore how deeply the corrupting influence of politics has ensnared his career and how clearly driven his aim has been towards obtaining more and more power over others. As for Romney, his entrepreneurial success would be unambiguously commendable if not for his marriage of political capital to the corporate state.
The closest a true political outsider has come to penetrating the system was Ross Perot a generation ago—and he was a multi-billionaire. Nominees from the two major parties must undergo a thorough vetting by the Republican or Democratic establishment, which essentially act as an adjunct of the U.S. government and are vulnerable to the special interests that fund them.
Sarah Palin was “merely” a governor of America’s largest state per area, and for this relatively humble station, she received cheers from other GOP leaders for her courage to challenge the platforms of the political elite. As McCain’s controversial running mate, she crafted an identity centered on family values, with a social agenda that appealed to middle America. How easily it can be forgotten that anyone who is running for VP on a major party ticket in November—anyone who can leave a job and fly around the country for months knowing her children are still provided for—is someone whose ability to relate to common struggles of the average American will have little to do with the person’s immediate experiences.
Americans like to believe that their leaders climb their way up from the bottom, yet this is rarely the case. By the time an individual has a shot at running the country, they have almost assuredly crossed the threshold into the socio-political elite, as has been the case since the beginning of our nation’s history. George Washington was one of the wealthiest men in America when he persuaded representatives from the thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution and make him president. Abe Lincoln was born in a Kentucky log cabin, but by the time he was inaugurated in 1861, he had been a Congressman and renowned attorney for the burgeoning railroad industry. Franklin Roosevelt, the people’s president, had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a governor, and a major player in over a dozen New York firms throughout the 1920s. Ronald Reagan, whom Codevilla inexplicably thinks was not a member of the ruling class, had been president of the Screen Actors Guild, key spokesman for General Electric, and two-term governor of the most populous state in the country.
Yet, most importantly, all who actually achieve the presidency (or serve as First Lady, for that matter) are by definition no longer part of the 99% if ever they were. The state itself is inherently inequitable, as is recognized by thinkers on both the populist right and egalitarian left. Occupy Wall Street’s David Graber sees the relationship between government and inequality as an intimate one: “History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police.” The right’s Codevilla makes a strikingly similar point: “Whatever else government may be, it is inherently a factory of privilege and inequality.”
The White House dictates trade agreements, drug approvals, the direction of national education policy, the food pyramid, and where to deploy American troops. The president controls the usage of our nuclear weapons and the largest surveillance apparatus ever employed. Everywhere the president goes, a perimeter of many city blocks is locked down, pushing aside the locals’ priorities to make way for an entourage that any prince or emperor in history might envy—a parade of nearly a thousand personnel that include armed guards, national security advisers, aides, a personal chef and cooks, multiple jets and helicopters, and dozens of armored vehicles.
Whatever distance exists between Ann Romney and the average American mother—and it is a chasm indeed—is understandable if we stop to consider the vetting practice embedded within our political process.
“Are these people too far removed from normal Americans to be in the White House?” It is a most ridiculous question. Even if they are not, the second they relocate to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they have moved into an entirely different class altogether.
This article was published at Huffington Post and reprinted with permission.