January 27, 2012

It’s not all relative

Republican candidates’ attempts to portray themselves as relatable “Everymen” are misleading.

George W. Bush was known as the presidential candidate with whom people wanted to drink a beer. Since I am indifferent to drinking and am not acquainted with any presidential candidates, I don’t base my vote on whether I’d like to have the candidate as a drinking buddy. Judging from the rhetoric of the current Republican presidential candidates, however, my resistance to choosing someone I can “relate to” must be unusual.

I am referring, of course, to the somewhat amusing spectacle of three wealthy men attacking one another for being rich. Politico reported that Rick Santorum said, “When you see my tax returns, you will note that I do not have the riches that other people have in this race.” While his statement is accurate, Santorum’s income in 2010 exceeded $1 million. Santorum is not exactly living a hardscrabble life, even if he isn’t the private jet–owning kind of wealthy. (Come to think of it, I have no idea how much money one needs to own a private jet. I wonder if this makes me more relatable.) When Newt Gingrich mocked Mitt Romney for making a $10,000 bet during a debate in December, Mitt Romney retorted, “If you have a half-a-million dollar purchase from Tiffany’s, you’re not a middle class American.” Given that the median US household income in 2010 was $49,445, I suppose Romney is correct. However, I would not be the first to point out the absurdity of Mitt Romney, a former executive whose 2010 income exceeded $20 million, criticizing someone for not being middle-class.

To be fair, the two candidates’ incomes are not of the same order of magnitude. However, the distinction between a candidate who earns more in one year than I expect to earn in a few decades and one whose annual income exceeds my expected lifetime earnings is really not that important to me. I would not oppose a candidate merely because he was wealthy, especially since all the recent GOP nominees are in the top 1 percent.

I am much more bothered by each candidate’s attempts to prove to voters that he is an everyman. By presenting themselves as what they believe to be “ordinary” Americans, the candidates are implicitly excluding Americans who don’t fit their conception of the everyman. Based on a composite of Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum, the everyman is a middle-aged, married, church-going Caucasian man who has several children. There are a lot of Americans who fit that description. Then again, there are a lot of us who don’t. If we are not part of the “mainstream,” do we matter less? The media has commented on how unusual it is to see Republicans waging class warfare, but it seems to me that, this year, class just happens to be a proxy for “authenticity.” This would be entirely consistent with the kind of “real Americans” shtick we heard from certain politicians in the last presidential election.

To me, what’s more important than a candidate’s ability to “relate” to people is his ability to recognize how other people differ from him. Most of the recent mainstream presidential candidates, for example, had no firsthand knowledge of what it was like to be female, second-generation, a racial minority, or a millennial. That’s fine. Given the diversity of the US, it’s impossible for anybody to be able to relate equally to all voters. However, if a candidate believes that he is an everyman and that the job of the president is to serve the interests of the everyman, then the logical conclusion is that acting in his own best interests is tantamount to acting in the best interests of all Americans.

This is obviously not the case. As much as I loathe the phrase “skin in the game”—a phrase used to describe individuals with a stake in the corporations they lead—I think it’s appropriate to say that presidential candidates usually do not have “skin in the game” when it comes to issues that matter to a lot of “other” people. For instance, it seems that very few of them rely on essential services like mass transit or public education. However, I believe that it is possible for politicians to make good decisions about policies that don’t affect them directly as long as they are aware that not everybody is in the same position as them. Politicians need to listen to people with different perspectives from their own, but that won’t happen until they acknowledge the validity of those different perspectives.

Jane Huang is a second-year in the College.