In today’s leisured, affluent, and globalized world, few elites are old-fashioned populists or on the perilous barricades of the civil-rights movement. Those who say they are — mostly the Democratic candidates — show us almost daily the contradictions and absurdity of it all.
John Edwards rails against the corporate elite and its strangulation of the little guy. But nothing in Edwards’s own life (even aside from the haircuts, sub-prime mortgage investments, and “John’s room”) would lead one to think he could ever be serious. When he speaks to a University of California audience on poverty, he takes not $5,000 or even $10,000, but $55,000, from the public coffers.
When he won lawsuits as an attorney, whether against doctors or the American Red Cross, he often gobbled up not several hundred thousand dollars, but millions, in cuts. This money did not come from the hides of moustached bandits in mahogany boardrooms; the costs were eventually borne by taxpayers or passed on to consumers. Thank God for winner-take-all capitalism.
Hillary Clinton likewise preaches fairness and egalitarianism, but nothing in her and her husband’s life suggests that they feel such a burden. Their appetites, expenditures, and tastes — in clothes, housing, transportation, and vacations — are no different from those of a John Kerry or an Al Gore. All behave like top-of-the-heap, carbon-spewing corporate CEOs.
The apologia for all this — that at least the liberal elite is pained enough to worry about others while indulging — rings hollow. Populism used to be the idea that someone from the lower and middling classes, or the laboring underbelly of America, would enlighten the public about the grimy ordeal of those not sharing in the fruits of our collective success. It was not selective noblesse oblige with a thin patina of Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan.
The same problems of consistency and authenticity arise these days with racial identity and all that comes with it. Bill Richardson — son of a banker, prep-school graduate, toiler in the vineyard of Kissinger Associates — assured us that he would be the first Hispanic president, due to his mother’s lineage. But why was that information necessary, and to what purpose was that appeal?
His background seems a world away from the contemporary Mexican-American experience. And in our current fantasy world of racial identity politics, he was hoisted on his own petard by unfortunately having his father’s English aristocratic name, William Blaine Richardson III. Had he taken on his mother’s maiden name (with accent), and as others have done, Hispanicized his first name, he might have had more media resonance — as, say, one Guillermo Márquez.
Ditto Sen. Barack Obama. It is an inexplicably surviving legacy of the racist antebellum South that a drop of African blood apparently cements a black identity. Senator Obama is forced to be seen — or wishes to be seen — not as white or even half-white, but as a de facto African-American and thus emblematic of all the historical ordeal that such an identity might encompass.
But by the logic of his own memoirs, it was his upbringing by his Kansas-born white mother and his long residence with his maternal grandparents that shaped his values and aspirations. His Kenyan father was almost always absent.
Had he been named not after his father, but, say, in honor of both his often-present mother and his omnipresent grandfather, Stanley Dunham, we might well have had a superficially different conception of him. A Sen. Stan Dunham would require some of the footnotes that Gov. Bill Richardson had to provide.
The point is not hypocrisy really, but rather that there is little authentic populism, ethnic fides, or general misery to be found among anyone blessed enough to run for our presidency. To think otherwise is not just intellectually dishonest, but a mirror of the falsity of our media-driven age.