I haven’t slept well since the first presidential debate. I couldn’t even watch Jon Stewart talk about it, to be honest. I felt queasy, as if I’d just drunk milk that was a day too old, and I was too lazy or cheap to go out and buy a fresh carton.
I felt queasy because Mitt Romney had just rummaged through all of my Republican spare parts and tried to reassemble them into a former version of myself. I was caught up in his convincing lie. But then I reminded myself of the core difference between the two candidates, the core difference between the old me and the new me: Obama sees the effects of privilege, and Romney doesn’t. Let me explain.
I grew up in semi-rural North Carolina, in what has become a suburb of Raleigh. My father was, and is, a Republican. We listened to Rush Limbaugh together. My parents took me out of school in the ninth grade to drive up to DC for the 2001 Bush inauguration. I remember standing on top of a stone-fence column, straining to get my first glimpse of a president, balancing on one foot until it fell asleep. It was cold.
That night at the North Carolina Inaugural Ball, I wore a tuxedo for the first time. I met the Doles; they were kind. Elizabeth Dole wore a canary yellow dress and canary yellow diamonds; she was gearing up for her Senate run. I tell this story because it was one of my first encounters with serious privilege, the kind of privilege that runs countries.
Eight years later, as a twenty-two-year-old at Harvard, I encountered privilege as I had never seen — from across the political spectrum. When I walked the grounds of Harvard Business School, I was shocked at the difference between their facilities and ours at the Graduate School of Education. At Romney’s alma mater, they had sushi chefs and private balconies. Water fowl roamed the grounds. And there were certain people I met, classmates and co-workers and others, with whom I felt this imperceptible distance. It could be a throwaway remark about a father who had a doctorate in English literature, or how so-and-so should really get in touch with her Scottish nanny. But I learned quickly that I was among people who grew up in vastly different circumstances, and that I was going to have to figure out these social cues quickly.
At Harvard, where both candidates were educated, people could wear their privilege more openly, more casually, as if expecting to see it all around. But the politics of privilege require politicians to learn how to cover themselves. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes; it’s that those clothes are bespoke Prada suits, hidden away until that closed-door 50k-a-head fundraiser. When during the debate Romney said,” the reason I’m in this race is there are people that are really hurting today in this country,” I thought back to 2001, when Bush said, “And all of us are diminished when any are hopeless.” Here he was, Romney-become-Bill, “I feel your pain.”
Voting is emotional. People who say otherwise are fooling themselves. Most people rely on this gut impression of a candidate — pundits call it likability or favorability. Pre-debate James Carville, and many other Democrats, said something along the lines of, “Well, he’s certainly not going to attack Obama on likability!” Yet Romney proved that he didn’t become a successful salesman by giving stale, logical appeals.
Thankfully, this sudden script change for Romney can’t hide what we’ve known all along about the candidate — and the party that created him — for this entire election cycle: the pervasive, destructive myth that a person’s poverty — or professional mediocrity, or the failure to live up to society’s expectations — is always and solely a result of just not trying hard enough.
Privilege matters not only because it provides a launching pad to great things, but because it colors how some of us see the world. For a president, it can color every decision, every policy, every executive order, every one of our lives.
But before someone screams “class warfare,” I know that Obama carries his own great privilege. Yes, his father abandoned him, but Obama Sr. attended graduate school at Harvard too. The difference is the recognition, the humility that comes with acknowledging our own accidents of birth. Yes, Obama was a community organizer, and Romney was a missionary, but the two men took two very different lessons from their experiences. Obama saw the awesome power of collective effort to help those in need — taxpayer effort — while Romney saw only the limited impacts of private charity. Obama remained in debt as Romney went on to indebt others.
When I was standing back on that frozen fence in 2001, I had the Republican mindset that I had earned everything I had. That my grades in school, and later my scholarships, were the product of merely effort. But I had parents who read to me at an early age, who took a deep interest in my schooling. And I had a grandfather — another Rush fan — and a mother working part-time so that someone was there when I got home from school. I lived on a golf course with neighbors who lived on a golf course. This is my accident of birth: to have parents who love me, to live in a safe neighborhood, and to sleep well at night.
All of that may seem quite ordinary, but I know now that it’s extraordinary. I get to work with children every day who can’t even do their homework at home, and that keeps my accomplishments in perspective. It has made me realize that meritocracy is a myth if you aren’t committed to leveling the playing field. If society and government take a hands-off approach and let the power chips fall where they may, we will become as hard, brutal and crystallized as those canary yellow diamonds.
Republicanism rests on the idea that individual achievement in a global society is the sole result of personal effort. It’s not. Republican economic policy allows individuals — and now, corporations — to act as Darwinian agents in an Ayn Rand fantasy. Their great myth is that if you sit back and let people fight it out in a free-market brawl of self-interest, the have-nots will have just as much chance as anybody to become haves. There is no compelling evidence — empirical, personal or moral — to support this nihilistic worldview, one more extreme than Republicans have ever espoused before. Before Bush’s economic catastrophe, you could perhaps make these arguments earnestly. Now, they ring hollow and false.
Romney ascribes this vision of America, so candy-coated in rugged individualism, because he is a son of extraordinary privilege with no apparent awareness of how good he had it. His contempt for the so-called 47 percent is rooted in this ignorance. It drives his domestic policy proposals. It seems trite to focus on a program that is such a small part of government spending, but Big Bird is the only education that some of our poorest children have before kindergarten.
Now Mitt Romney has begun his charm offensive. We must remember that it is a lie. America is not a corporation. I want a president treating me as a person, not as a data point on a spreadsheet, waiting to be minimized.
Follow Adam Kirk Edgerton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AdamKirkEdge