In search of a President just like me

Where did all this concern about voting for a President who is “just like you,” or at least deeply “understands” your life, come from?  Some variation of this standard is constantly being flung against Mitt Romney, because he’s extremely wealthy.  The infamous Obama campaign attack on stay-at-home moms was born as a similar attempt to claim that no one should pay attention to Ann Romney, because her life as a lavishly coddled “corporate wife” (to borrow the unfortunate phrase coined by commentator Juan Williams much later) is so dramatically different from the lives of middle-class women.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Barack Obama isn’t “just like you,” either.  His upbringing was quite exotic.  He’s a lifelong politician who has, at best, only briefly experienced anything like a typical middle-class existence.

And there’s no point in singling out Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for this analysis.  Very few high-level officials have walked more than a few steps in the shoes of a typical middle-class voter.  Even fewer plausible candidates for the White House could say as much.  Some of them lived through tough times in their youth, but that was a long time ago.

Furthermore, the lives of middle class people are very diverse.  People of roughly comparable income levels have very different current and past experiences.  An office manager might pull down roughly the same kind of money as a shrimp boat crewman, but their lives have very little in common.

While politicians and pundits love to throw around the term “middle class,” it’s far too broad to describe any particular group of people.  Life in the upper income echelons of the middle class is very different from what the lower reaches experience.  Individual people rise and fall through these income categories over the course of a lifetime.  My own life as a middle-class forty-something is very different from the life I led as a middle-class worker in my twenties. The same is most likely true for you.

We therefore make broad allowances for compassion when judging which political candidates are most “in touch” with our needs.  There’s no way to precisely measure such compassion – it’s an impression vigorously manipulated by political handlers.  Sometimes a candidate’s presumption of sympathy can be stripped away by a few statements, or a particular incident, such as the legendary (and inaccurately perceived) encounter between the elder George Bush and a grocery store scanner.  Bush was portrayed as completely unfamiliar with this common item of commercial technology; this was said to mean he was totally out of touch with ordinary life.

But why, at any rate, should we be so concerned with electing a representative – much less the chief executive of the United States – based on how much he sympathizes with our daily struggles?  He’s not going to pop into the office one day and help you clean up your workload.  He’s not going to help you shop for a new car.  He’s going to deal with issues far different from anything a typical middle-class person faces.  Wouldn’t it be better to vote for an unsympathetic person who is very good at that uniquely demanding job, rather than an inept administrator who is good at pretending he knows what it’s like to hunt for bargains at the grocery store to make ends meet?  How many other skilled professionals would you choose largely, or even primarily, on the basis of their likability?

The search for so many voters to find a President “in touch” with their lives boils down to something we have often been sternly instructed, by political and media elites, to avoid discussing: character.  It’s the shorthand method people use for evaluating character, without sounding judgmental.  As traditional methods for assessing character became less fashionable – particularly for assessing liberals – the new, highly subjective, endlessly flexible metric of connection became the all-purpose scale for determining trustworthiness.

Banished were stern, unflinching standards, such as military service, professional accomplishment, and marital fidelity.  The substitution of personal connection was so complete that Democrats were unable to swap the traditional measure of military service back in, when they needed to sell the absurdly out-of-touch John Kerry to voters in 2004.  Those older credentials of character still have power, but generally speaking, being seen as more “in touch” with the “common man” trumps them all.  We look for ourselves in the candidate, and are assured of their reliability and integrity when we find it.  It’s a form of insurance through self-interest: if a candidate really empathizes with the middle class, and feels a personal connection with it, he will be less likely to take actions that harm it.

It’s always tricky to judge what a candidate will do, once office is attained.  The forgotten campaign promise is a melancholy staple of political life.  It’s understandable that people are more likely to believe a promise made by someone who is “just like them.”


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