Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How Rich

The latest trend in electoral campaigns is the super-rich running as an outsider. We’re seeing it here in Florida with Rick Scott, a conservative who made a pile by running Columbia/HCA healthcare — and dodging fraud charges — running for governor, and Jeff Greene, another billionaire with some questionable dealings in his past, running in the Democratic primary for the Senate. Elsewhere we have Carly Fiorina, who was once the CEO of HP, running for the Senate in California along side Meg Whitman, who used to be the president of e-Bay, trying to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger. They’re all over the place, including Wisconsin, where Sen. Russ Feingold, perhaps the most outspoken liberal in the United States Senate, has to run ads touting his conservative endorsements in his race to win re-election against Ron Johnson, who is — you guessed it — rolling in it and with the backing of the Tea Party.

Hey, this is America and anyone with enough lungpower and connections can run for any office they want. But it’s interesting to see not only are the super-rich getting involved in politics, they’re doing their best to try to portray themselves as just like you and me. Of course, they’re not. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted, “The rich are different from you and me.” To which Ernest Hemingway is said to have retorted, “Yes, they have more money.” (The retort is a misquote, but it still rings true.) The idea of a rich person running for office — usually for the first time — as an outsider and just plain folks is one of those paradoxes that makes politics in America the maddeningly fascinating game that it has come to be.

Americans have a love/hate relationship with the wealthy. We admire them for their enterprise and their drive to accumulate massive sums of money, perhaps envisioning that somehow, some way, it could happen to us, and yet we hate them for their palatial homes and fancy boats and cars and $1,000 bottles of wine. We think that they have the secrets of success and we want it for ourselves, and yet we sneer at anything about them that hints at elitism, and love seeing them acting like one of us, which explains the booming business in celebrity gossip (“Look! Brad Pitt buys food at a grocery store!”) That’s why the super-rich running for office go to such pains to portray themselves as ordinary folks. That’s why Sarah Palin can talk about being a hockey mom and going huntin’ and trappin’ and collect $100,000 and fly first class to deliver the talk about being just like you. That’s why Rick Scott and Jeff Greene go around Florida trying to make it look like they’re out there for the little guy, creating jobs and getting to work for us. They’ll do anything to show that while they’re rich, they’re not elitists. Elitism is a charge that only works in the third person; we’re rich, and that’s great, but they are elites. Boo hiss. (Steve M. has a primer on the difference between being rich and being elitist.)

Of course the reality is that if you’re rich in America, you’re not an outsider. You worked the system, you know the people in power in places where knowing them helped you get rich. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s how America is supposed to work. But let’s not kid ourselves; no one running for office who is financing their own campaign with the couple of million bucks of loose change that fell out of their pockets can truly call themselves an outsider no matter how many beat-up pick-up trucks they drive or how many ads they film talking to farmers or ranchers or people of color. The only reason that it works is because they know that the people watching the ads are all thinking, “Hey, that could be me” in the same way they think that wearing Calvin Klein underwear will turn them into a well-muscled hunk or eating NutriSystem will turn them into a skinny runway model. And it works.