If Americans are such huge fans of big dreams and high rolling, self-made tycoons and upward mobility, why then do we insist on seeing our national political elites -- who are also generally our economic and educational elites -- throw back a shot of whiskey or lace up bowling shoes?
Why do we need to pretend that high-flying politicians who graduated from the fanciest schools and dine at the toniest restaurants really don’t live in a different world and -- dare I say it -- class than the rest of us?
The easy answer is that we want to identify with them, and we want them to identify with us. But there’s also something more at play here, and that’s the never-ending tension between our cherished ideologies of mobility and equality.
We don’t want to think about the real shape of class in America. Who fits where in the hierarchy has always been a touchy, even embarrassing, issue, and when it is discussed, it’s usually in harsh, moralistic tropes about the haves and have nots that do nothing to illuminate nuances.
It’s long been an enduring quirk of American politics that the most successful politicians are the ones who best conceal the very hauteur that gives them the supreme confidence -- or is it gall? -- to think they can lead the most powerful nation on Earth. Ironically, the pols who started at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder often feel most obliged to strike a humble pose. As political scientist Elliot White wrote in 1971, “The greater the distance traveled, the greater the pretense of not having gone far at all.”
Sure, high-ranking politicians of humble origins can lay at least some claim to being “common.” But that’s really a ruse. Because the best politicians wouldn’t get as far as they do if they hadn’t already successfully convinced large numbers of people that they were distinct from -- read: better than -- the rest of us.
And therein lies our dilemma. We hold to the belief that we are all equal, yet we yearn for distinctiveness for ourselves and those we choose to represent us. In a nation whose form of government exalts the illusion of uniformity among its citizens, we are collectively engaged in a struggle to be recognized as unique by our peers.
Alexis de Tocqueville was one of a handful of observers who made the link between an exalted American belief in equality and a much more mundane attitude -- vanity.
Here’s how it works. The ideology of equality, which teaches us that every man is just as good as the next, appeals to our pride. We cling to this belief even as experience in our everyday lives proves to us that it is not true. We are quite aware of the fact that some people achieve greater success than others; some are rich and some are poor. But that only makes us adhere to our belief all the more. As Czech scholar Petr Lom has suggested, “the dogma of equality” takes hold of the imagination and gives us hope that we really are equal to everyone. It fuels our dreams that we can be, will be (and therefore magically that we are) just the same as those who have achieved more money, fame or status than ourselves.
Democratic strategist and political analyst Doug Schoen concurs. Having worked with such billionaire candidates as Jon Corzine (New Jersey governor) and Michael Bloomberg (New York mayor), Schoen believes Americans want to perceive even the most successful people as Everyman. “We want wealthy and famous people to be different from us,” he said. “But we also want them to be the same.”
He advises wealthy candidates to buy “bio spots to tell their story” and demonstrate that story’s connection to ordinary peoples’ life experiences. “Voters need to see that they are accessible,” he said. “That they’re not disconnected.”
This “connection” evidently elicits a sense of aspiration among voters, whereas a disconnect can create envy. A person steeped in democratic values who cannot aspire to be equal to his social superior is likely to seek equality in another way, by bringing the mighty down to his own level -- another great American tradition.
So the next time you see a presidential candidate make a fool of himself or herself by pretending to be Mr. or Mrs. Average American, remember -- he or she isn’t simply trying to curry favor or empathize with us commoners. The gutter balls and the whiskey shots are less about persuading the voters of the candidates’ genuine humility (the moments are so awkward, does anyone really find them authentic?) than they are about self-defense. What these elite politicians are really doing is trying to keep the American public from ever bringing them down to size.