The “common man” — and “common woman” — narrative provides the staple story for Democrats, regardless of the reality, as Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night demonstrated. She repeated half-truths, implying that she grew up on the mean streets of Chicago’s South Side and that she forewent a lucrative career in law for charity work. Her narrative echoes the staple of her husband’s speeches: that he is the son of a man who grew up herding goats in Kenya.
In announcing his choice of running mate, Barack Obama turned once again to the working-class narrative. “Joe, Sr.” cleaned boilers and sold cars to make ends meet. Biden himself resounded the populist theme in his acceptance speech by referring to his “dad who fell on hard economic times.” The now-discredited narrative of the discredited John Edwards was that of a son of a millworker.
John McCain, by contrast, doesn’t know how many houses he owns, charge the Democrats.
History since ancient times shows, though, that such narratives, even if based in reality, rarely translate into good rule, as Petronius’ satire about a brutal and barbaric freed slave illustrates. In The Republic, Plato points to the loss of excellence and the rise of mob rule that emerge in a popular democracy. Our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, the populist, raised in the backwoods and poorly educated, brought disgrace to the White House. The nouveau riche have provided the fodder for Henry James’ novels. Today, those who have catapulted into wealth and celebrity through sports and low forms of music provide evidence against the leadership abilities of the “common man.”
What happens when you try to appeal to the common man is that you often become common. At Jackson’s inauguration, his “guests” trashed the White House.
Edmund Burke understood the false road of such an appeal and the benefits of an aristocratic upbringing, which meant:
To be bred in a place of estimation; to see nothing low and sordid from one’s infancy; to be taught to respect one’s self; to be habituated to the censorial inspection of the public eye; to look early to public opinion; to stand upon such elevated ground as to be enabled to take a large view of the wide-spread and infinitely diversified combinations of men and affairs in a large society; to have leisure to read, to reflect, to converse; to be enabled to draw the court and attention of the wise and learned wherever they are to be found; to be habituated in the pursuit of honor and duty.
Exceptional men like Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln rose above the circumstances of their births through perseverance and their own intelligence — and much reading. These men appreciated an aristocracy of manners and intellect. Wealth and class provide opportunity to enjoy such endeavors that lead to “a guarded and regulated conduct,” Burke noted. Such conduct emerges from “a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow-citizens in their highest concerns, and that you act as a reconciler between God and man.” Those in the upper echelons of law, science, art, and trade enjoy this ability and thus form a “natural aristocracy, without which there is no nation.”
Such statements abrade populists who dominate in opinion-making, education, and aesthetics. Even a claim that Shakespeare is on a higher level than the rapper Tupac Shakur is taken as elitism.