Class is everywhere these days. Not “class” as in “class act” but “class” as in “class struggle.” Yet, Americans remain reluctant to even employ the language that best fits the growing economic and cultural divides within this country. It is part of our national myth that our society is not and never has been hidebound by class distinctions the way, say, the Brits are. Our Constitution forbids titles of nobility. There are only two ways to gain membership in the House of Windsor, you must be born into it or you must marry into it. In America, we believe, anyone can make it to the top.
That belief is now in some doubt and a thousand blessings on those people who are willing to pay attention to the consequences of its fragility. One of those is Michael Gerson whose essay in this morning’s Washington Post should be read, and re-read, by Mr. Romney and his campaign staff. Gerson points to a recent study that indicates the ways Americans, despite rising incomes mostly across the board, remain stuck within the class into which they were born. For the first time, many European nations now have greater social mobility than the U.S.
Gerson points in general terms to the kind of solutions that must be sought. “Economic redistribution is not the answer, but economic growth is not sufficient either,” Gerson writes. “Upward mobility requires the broad diffusion of skills and social capital. Romney, while disarmingly recognizing his own advantages, should demonstrate some market-oriented innovation in extending advantages to others: promoting early-childhood education, high school completion, college attendance and graduation, parenting skills and wealth-building among the disadvantaged. It would be a powerful political message, addressing a serious need, in a manner consistent with conservative ideals.”
Unfortunately for Gerson’s moral seriousness, today’s GOP has decided to become beholden to those who upward mobility is the result of one of the oldest methods known to man: selling vice. An article at Politico details how Karl Rove courted Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, and how Wynn courted Rove, resulting not only in a nifty free ride for Rove and his new wife on Wynn’s jet to their honeymoon in Italy, but in millions of dollars of campaign cash for the GOP. Wynn joins Sheldon Adelson, another casino magnate who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s campaign during the primaries and is now doing the same for Romney, among the key GOP movers-and-shakers. American politics would be more serious if it was not so beholden to the super-rich, no matter how they got their money, but it is hard to take GOP claims to embody religious sensibilities when their campaigns are bankrolled by Wynn and Adelson.
As I detailed in my biography of Jerry Falwell, there was a crisis of sorts for the Lynchburg minister when it turned out that a large contribution had come, after a bit of laundering, from the Unification Church of Rev. Moon. Falwell, quoting the early twentieth century evangelist Billy Sunday, responded to the revelation by saying, “The Devil has had that money long enough” and he declined to return the funds. The quip is hilarious, and points to one of the reasons Falwell was so effective. But, in the Rove-Wynn-Adelson connections, it is difficult to see that the devil’s money has actually changed hands from the forces of darkness to the forces of light. More like a shuffling among the devil’s workmen.
Anne Applebaum also looks at issues of class in her column this morning, contrasting “the financial oligarchy, the ‘global elite,’ the post-financial-deregulation world that is just as easily caricatured as one of iced champagne, offshore bank accounts, dressage trainers and private islands” from which Romney has emerged with “the intellectual/academic meritocracy, the ‘liberal elite,’ the post WASP Ivy League, easily caricatured as the world of free-trade coffee, organic arugula, smug opinions and Martha’s Vineyard” from which President Obama emerged. Of course, caricatures do not always fit precisely. Mr. Romney, a devout Mormon, presumably declines the iced champagne and Martha’s Vineyard has long been a vacation destination for generations of less than filthy rich, non-Ivy League, African-Americans.
Applebaum’s key point, however, is not which elite you prefer to run the country, but the ways that “you certainly cannot argue that either of them is in close touch with ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ or even ‘middle class’ people, however those terms might be defined…Which is just as well, because the political success of both Obama and Romney proves that radical populism in the United States has failed spectacularly. For all the attention they got, neither Occupy Wall Street nor the tea party has a candidate in this race. Neither found a way to channel inchoate, ill-defined public anger – at the deficit, at the banks – into electoral politics or clear alternatives. Whoever wins in November, we’ll therefore get the elite we deserve.” I can’t tell whether Applebaum mourns this result or not. I am no fan of “inchoate, ill-defined public anger” but surely in America today there should be some vehicle for expressing morally serious, well-defined public anger. Alas, Mr. Rove and his casino zillionaires and Mr. Obama with his super-successful coterie of advisors seem determined to ameliorate, not to address, that anger.
The anger is there. People respect both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama for what they have accomplished. Both men have careers that required discipline, application, thoughtfulness, as well as a bit of luck, and they succeeded. But, Americans know that the candidates’ careers are the exceptions to the new rule that Gerson warns about: Our society is no longer credibly premised on the fact that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can improve your station in life. The party that figures out how to renew the credibility of that most American of myths is the party that will dominate in the years ahead. In the meantime, I will side with the party, the Democratic Party, that continues to insist that there are some things, like health care, that should not be tied to one’s station in life but should be afforded by any humane society to all of its citizens.