With the Republican primary finally over, Mitt Romney and President Obama are certain to ratchet up their rhetoric considerably as the general election takes shape. Some of the sharpest jabs yet have come this month, with Romney hypocritically criticizing President Obama’s Harvard ties, and Obama mocking Romney over his use of the word “marvelous.” The media has also joined the fray, perhaps most notably by Gawker's leaking unaired FOX news footage of Romney talking about his horses. These attacks serve as an indicator of what likely lies ahead: a race largely defined by how well the candidates are able to disconnect themselves from their own wealth.
This, of course, is nothing new. In fact, it’s what voters have come to expect. Every election, we implicitly ask our candidates to pretend to be something almost none of them are: normal. No multi-millionaire in America can seriously hope to win an election without rolling up his/her sleeves and swigging a beer at least once. And although recent efforts, mostly by conservatives, to rebrand prodigious wealth as a natural outcome of the American Dream and individual liberty have abetted the mistrust of the wealthy among some voters, many other voters, especially on the left, remain apprehensive towards conspicuously rich candidates for higher office. The rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street has exacerbated this dynamic to such a point that many liberals are prepared to see the wealthy solely as enemies. While I believe that important links exist between income inequality in America and the political power of the wealthy,I also feel the wholesale demonization of the 1% is a mistake, especially given how important certain members of the 1% have been to the progressive movement in this country. The simple fact is that liberals and our country have benefited greatly from the successes of candidates from the 1%. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Money is only part of the equation; although financial support for liberal candidates and groups from individual wealthy donors is an important aspect of the liberal-1% relationship (after all, is there anyone more 1% than George Soros?), arguably now more than ever – post-Citizens United and unlimited corporate cash –donations only account for the material side of what the wealthy have been able to contribute to liberal politics. The most valuable assets liberals have obtained from the rich have been leadership and ideas. The New Deal and all of the vital social programs that came with it (Social Security, the first national minimum wage, etc.) were promoted and enacted by a bold president plucked straight from the 1%, Franklin Roosevelt. His Second Bill of Rights guaranteeing the rights to food, education, and a job, among other things, sounds like a document that could easily have been drafted in Zuccotti Park. Similarly, upbringings defined by privilege and power didn’t prevent the Kennedys from becoming advocates for minorities, the poor, and the middle class. These and many other privileged figures have made invaluable contributions to liberal thought and policy, demonstrating that wealth itself is not incompatible with progressive values.
Ultimately, it’s empathy that matters. Liberals havewelcomed candidates within the 1% like FDR and the Kennedys with the compassion and perception to think beyond their own economic well-being about the struggles and challenges facing the underprivileged in America. It is empathy that separates those within the 1% who back liberal solutions aimed at tackling poverty and helping those most affected by the recent economic crisis, and those who aggressively defend the highly inequitable status quo. And it is empathy that we should be seeking in wealthy candidates who want to convince voters of their connectedness to the lives of average Americans.
I look forward to the day when wealthy candidates for higher office in this country can run winning campaigns without hiding their privilege, safe in the knowledge that they will be evaluated solely on the merits of their proposals, their personal integrity, and their ability to reach out to average Americans on a level beyond photo-ops and sloppily adopted "everyman" accents and colloquialisms. Hopefully, many of those candidates will be liberals.