Saturday, May 24, 2008

Elitism Now!

I was reading an article about Obama and his perceived elitism a few weeks ago and while I agreed with most of the article, one part stuck out at me as not ringing true. The writer claimed that Obama had been too middle class until the last couple of years to have been considered wealthy and therefore doesn't have the life experiences to be elitist. Beyond being a bullshit line of argument, the numbers just didn't add up to me. True, Obama is the poorest of the candidates still in the running and he wasn't a millionaire until his two books were published, but before that, both he and his wife still pulled in six figures a year.

That's not really middle class to me. It may be far from what the truly rich make, but they made three times what my wife and I make as teachers and we have enough money to live comfortably. And while big-city suburbanites might be able to identify with that kind of income, the magical "working class" segment of the population that keeps getting referred to on TV really can't. I live in a fairly typical rural area for pretty much anywhere outside of the northeast or that thin sliver of the West Coast where small towns are just full of rich retired people from the cities. The average household income is in the mid $20,000s and the unemployment rate is about double the national average. That means that by myself as a teacher I make a good bit more than the average family in my county. Combined with my wife, we're about as far from the average person here as Barack Obama and his wife are from us.

The fact of the matter is that no presidential candidate has any idea what it's like to be the average American. Jimmy Carter probably came the closest in the modern era, but by the time he ran for president, he'd become wealthier than his upbringing by far. Obama may be the closest to the average man of the current candidates with his single-parent home, but he still is private school and Ivy League educated and worked as a lawyer, a profession most people see as fabulously lucrative. I don't think Obama is as guilty of elitism as he is of unabashed intelligence, and that shouldn't be taken as a flaw. We should have learned that after the last eight years. Still, I think the disconnect of the educated class from the actual experiences of what the average income really is like causes a lot of problems in economic and poverty policy.


JustinS said...

So glad you brought this up... I've been trying to come up with a way to talk about the elitism thing for awhile and never figured out a means that didn't result in me sounding like a raving lunatic.

I actually want an elitist president. That whole "I wanna prezdent I can have me a beer with" argument just pisses me off. I've had beers with many, many people over the course of my life, and not once have I looked at one of them over my frosty mug o' goodness and thought to myself, "Shit, yeah, that dude should be Commander-in-Chief!"

I mean, we're talking about The President of the United States here, not the guy you want running the Jiffy Lube. The person in that position should be smarter than me, should be able to think/talk on his feet better than me, should be able to hobnob with the most powerful people on the planet...

And that person will represent each of us to every other country on the planet.

So fuck, yeah, give me an elitist. Give me some dude who bowls a 34, or a woman who doesn't know who won American Idol. Just don't try to convince me that I should be down on someone because he can pick arugula out of a lineup.

And shit. I failed miserably at that whole don't-wanna-sound-like-a-madman bit, huh?

Courtney said...

I totally agree with justins up there. I don't know why people want a president that seems like a buddy, because odds are you're never going to have a beer with that person.

I don't find Obama elitist, though; in fact I think he seems very relatable. I think the elitist argument actually reflects a bit of racism: People don't expect black people to be well-spoken (sad but true) so to have a viable candidate who is black and a good public speaker is just begging for someone to call him elitist. If this were the '60s, people would call him "uppity."

Jacob said...

Justins and Courtney: Spot on. I've never gotten a sense of elitism from Obama (or my dad's description of him as being too slick). I do get a sense of his being a bit of a hipster, and I guess that strikes some as offputting, but I think I'm too much of an elitist myself to recognize it as such.

Chris said...

To your dad's observation: the fact is almost all politicians are a little "too slick," at least if they have any success on a national level. If a presidential candidate were candid about his/her thoughts and views even 50% of the time, hardly anyone would vote for them.

Still it would be fun to watch.