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.
Such degradation of culture and art arises from the disastrous and romantic ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The notion that poverty breeds nobility comes from spoiled theorists like Rousseau who have not experienced the meanness that such an environment often brings about. (Perhaps the most dangerous is the man who grows up rich and then acquires populist pretensions.) The romantic view is dangerous in its sentimentality. The romantic poets charted heroic narratives for themselves as they championed those they saw as simple and virtuous.
More often, hunger and poverty breed coarseness and meanness. Those who rise from such depths often lord over those beneath them. It is especially true of those who resent the “aristocracy” — those embittered by having been beneath anyone else socially or economically. They seek to get what’s “theirs” — whether on a private or public scale.
Rousseau’s notion about the “general will” of a people who follow a leader attuned to their desires provided the blueprint for communism. Rousseau saw civilization, and its order, as impediment to a natural happiness. Of course, natural feelings lead to, among other base inclinations, greed.
Back in the place of my birth, a machine worker, Joseph Broz Tito, rose to be the tyrannical leader of Yugoslavia. Forming his little oligarchy, this “worker” indulged himself with villas and extravagances for guests, paid for by peasants like my family who sometimes had to give the government more crops than they harvested.
It is the Democratic Party that questions the Electoral College and agitates for the popular vote. They spread their largess from money confiscated from taxpayers. Obama calls the 65-year-old Joe Biden — who never served in the military, has worked for only two years in the private sector, and has enjoyed a comfortable standard of living at public expense — a “public servant.” But he is no Cincinnatus, no General George Washington who declined a third term as president.
And the narrative of Michelle Obama, who in reality enjoyed a middle-class upbringing with a stay-at-home mother, and then an Ivy League education and the benefits of affirmative action, should send a warning. The Michelle Obama speaking on Monday night sounded quite different from the one who took perceived slights during her days at Princeton and turned them into a bitter social indictment in a thesis. Her “public-sector” volunteer work at the University of Chicago Medical Center, a public hospital, for which she presumably “gave up” a lucrative law career, garnered her a $200,000 bonus after her husband’s election to the Senate, to make her salary well over $300,000 a year. And the Obamas have been helped by a convicted felon slumlord who did not use his government aid to keep up his housing for poor people.
I’d rather see someone in office who didn’t know how many houses he has acquired from an inherited private fortune over one bent on acquiring villas or mansions at public expense. The notion that a future president, as Michelle Obama stated Monday, wants to remake the world into what he says “it should be,” should sound the alarm bells. We’ve heard egomaniacs state similar sentiments to the masses before.