Presidents and Class Politics: An Exchange

I’ve past below an exchange I had with a reader about the class symbolism of presidential politics. I think the reader raises some interesting points:

From: Lawyer Guy

To: Chris Hayes

As has been written about extensively, economic populism was a factor in the ‘06 elections and possibly was the deciding factor. But what I am interested in is the resurgence of the populist method of campaigning and leadership. I do not really mean policy ideas; I mean the rhetoric and theater of the campaign trail. I think the revival starts with Clinton in 1992: the McDonald’s trips, the liberal quotation of bible passage, the oft-videographed jogs with the secret service. It continues with Bush’s carefully calculated folk-isms and speech patterns. It even affects folks like John Roberts and Alito in their confirmation hearings: think of how much humility was mentioned and discussed during those times——Roberts himself must have used the word humble (or some variant thereof) a dozen times. But, this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. Blair and Schroeder were shadows of Clinton. Lula and Evo Morales (playing soccer with the locals!) are in this trend. The upcoming French presidential race will feature Sergolene Royal and Sarkozy, each of which is running a battle of who was raised the poorest type of campaign. The populist campaign cares less about which college you went to (Harvard and Yale may be liabilities these days) and more about whether you worked a blue collar job to pay your way through college and how many bathrooms you had growing up on the farm.

I guess what I am interested in is what has inspired candidates to shun their elitism as a campaign positive and adopt the mantle of average-joe-ship. It’s hard to think of JFK or FDR or Reagan ever campaigning as an everyman, but such an image seems a necessity these days. The litmus test may be “Who would I want to drink a beer with” instead of “Who would I want to hear give the State of the Union address?”

I think part of the answer lies in the disintermediating effect of increased media attention and blogs, which creates a feedback loop with the role of government in people’s lives. The idea being that the space between candidates and the voters is shrinking. The interaction with the candidate even 15 years ago seemed limited to personal appearances, the odd TV interview, and any debates that may occur. Not, it’s constant. Candidates seem aloof and elitist at their own peril (see, e.g., John Kerry, losing an election he had no business losing in part because he really just did not seem like a nice person).

But, I think the other part of the answer (and probably the more interesting part, because everyone talks about Blogs these days) is that these candidates maybe are not putting on a show. This really is their background (W. excluded; he really is putting on a show), and they are proud of it. So, the general idea is that while candidates may be no less rich than in days of yore, many more do come from less rich backgrounds, and they bring with them a very different cultural and economic perspective. Maybe a century of trying to open up politics to the true middle classes has succeeded. The question, of course, going forward is whether how far deep the populist roots run with folks like Webb and John Roberts and whether it translates to differences in policy. Time will tell.

From: Chris Hayes
To: Lawyer Guy

I think you’ve definitely put your finger on something, which is what I’d call the Politics of Authenticity. Part of that has to do with the rise of the right-wing populism that Thomas Frank has identified, this kind of fetishization of “middle america” that was part of the conservative backlash and the correlated anger directed at the “liberal establishment.” For that reason, JFK could be far prouder of his Harvard pedigree than Kerry could be of his Yale years. I do think, as you note, that the 24 hour news cycle and blogs magnify this effect precisely for the reasons you mention.

But the most provocative point is that the class background of our presidential candidates have altered. In some senses that is undoubtedly true. In fact, the first elected president for whom this is most true is none other than Richard Milhouse Nixon, who graduated from the lowly Whittier College and was from a working class, Quaker family. There’s a case to be made that Nixon’s class animus and contempt for the establishment that always seemed to be shutting him out provided the structure for the kind of right-wing populist class politics that have become so familiar. In terms of “regular guy-ness” the post-war economic changes and broad middle class prosperity those years brought produced a series of presidents who came from outside the traditional east coast establishment: Nixon (from California), Carter (from Georgia, though his family was well-off Southern gentry), Reagan (from Dixon, Illinois) and of course Clinton (from Hope, Arkansas). At the same time that the access to political power were broadening regionally, we’ve seen, in the last 30 years, a re-rigidifying of class boundaries, and I expect that while the regional composition of presidential candidates will continue to broaden, most elections for the next few decades will resemble 2004: Harvard v Yale, or some permutation thereof (Obama’s Columbia and Harvard, Hilary is Wellesley and Yale, Mitt Romney is Harvard law and Harvard MBA and the son of a senator). The Establishment, or what C. Wright Mills called “The Power Elite” has undergone a rigidifying in the past 20 or so years and there’s empirical data to back this up: class mobility has declined significantly during that time. But the result of this, I think, is that we’re going to cling even more strongly to the vision of the president you can “drink a beer’’ with. I think our class anxieties will still be given most of their outlet in the symbolic realm (rather than, say, taxing the wealthy)

The other aspect, in terms of authenticity, is the perceptive point you make about the degree to which candidates aren’t faking it when they play out these “blue collar” trappings. That, I think, is part and parcel of the formation of the socio-educational elite. Take myself for example. If I ever ran for office, it’d be pretty clear that I come from the socio-education elite: I went to Brown, and I move in all the circles of the highly educated etc. But I still conceive of myself very strongly as a working class kid from the Bronx. The point is that no one likes to see themselves as the product of privilege. And we all create identities for ourselves that are somehow dependent on our own outsider-ness and bootstrapping. So I see myself as a working class kid from the Bronx, who loves pick-up basketball and started working at age 14, even though that’s really only a very partial aspect of my full identity. The point is no matter how privileged someone has, they do the same thing. When Mr. Patrician himself, George H W Bush gave his nomination acceptance speech in 1988, he talked about striking out on his own, moving to Houston, “living the dream,” as if he was a poor immigrant from Mexico opening up a grocery store. Here’s the scion of one of the most politically connected families in America moving to Houston to strike it rich in the crony capitalist enterprise of Texas oil, and he’s portraying it as your standard American up-by-the-bootstraps story. That says a lot, I think.

Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.


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