Why We Envy Rich People: Explaining Obama’s Elitism

September 12, 2011  |  

In Maureen Dowd’s September 3rd editorial, she made the following observation:

“On MSNBC, the anchors were wistfully listening to old F.D.R. speeches, wishing that this president had some of that fight. But Obama can’t turn into F.D.R. for the campaign because he aspires to the class that F.D.R. was a traitor to; and he can’t turn into Harry Truman because he lacks the common touch. He has an acquired elitism.”

There have been a storm of commentaries regarding the source of President Obama’s malaise. Some say the young President is in over his head, while others view him more as a man on his own, out of touch and out of the loop.

But Dowd goes deeper in assuming that President Obama  isn’t fighting for his base because he’s no longer politically or ideologically aligned with them.  In Dowd’s estimation, he is a man not on his own, but a man with benefactors who’ve wooed Obama over to their side, convinced him to adopt their worldview; a world seen from high atop an enclave of modern day castles and meticulously groomed archways.

A deeply speculative reading, to be sure, but it does explain Obama’s overwhelmingly blah response to the core tenets of American politics; risk taking, core competency and legislative one upmanship. Risk for what? For whom? It could very well be that Obama is now a made man and he knows it.

If President Obama has finally emerged from his inner conflict- one of elite Harvardite turned President versus up from nothing mutt – as an elitist, then he is following a long held American cultural tradition of aspirational elitism.

Most of us have spent the past two years enrapt in the psychological contortions of the Tea Party. This is not to say that there aren’t thoughtful and deliberate thinkers in the ranks of the Tea Party because there are. But many in that evangelical class of low information voters are enthusiastically voting against their own interest and in favor of the interests of multi-billionaires and billionaires.

And before you get all comfy on your perch, consider the number of African Americans who are hypnotized by a particularly virulent genre of luxury worship, also known as hip-hop. This class confusion is evidenced by the Kanye West and Jay-Z song “Otis”.

Most hip-hop heads who rave about the video “Otis” from the album “Watch the Throne”  will never own a Maybach.   Unlike Jay-Z,  most will never count Gwenneth Paltrow among their closest friends, nor should they aspire get in the actress’s good graces. What makes Paltrow’s friendship worth any more than your current BFF?  And if you don’t own a Maybach, why get so excited when Jay-Z or Kanye West rap about how good it feels to spin around in one?

For too long, the most affluent people on the planet have been announcing to us in the most braggadocios way possible that they are better than us. That they deserve more than us. That they don’t even need us.  In unison, we’ve answered back; you’re right. This explains why we contort our values to fit into their worldview and celebrate their achievements as our own.

Aspirationalism is a part of us. I suspect it is an evolved behavior that grew out of abject poverty and an unchecked appetite for something better- one day. I guess if you can’t reach a particular goal, or own certain possessions, the next best thing is to cheer on those with whom you identify. So Tea Partiers are cheering for their externalized and better off reflection; white, button-downed CEOs in navy blue suits.  And African Americans are reimagining themselves as rappers with gaudy diamond encrusted jewels and whips. It’s escapism at its worse.

But if we’re ever to move forward, it must be with a cohesive psyche. We must realize who and what we are, as well as whom and what we are not.  We are all a part of an economic class, be it lower, middle, or upper class. Our fortunes may improve with consistent effort, but that’s not what this is about. You don’t do battle from an imagined position. You do battle from where you are.

If Obama is, as Dowd alludes, a turncoat, then he should be held to account for betraying the ideals he feigned allegiance to during the campaign. But we should all acknowledge that we led the way for Obama. We turned on our collective selves long before Obama was ever in a position to turn on us. By and large, our predicament is our own fault.

Yvette Carnell is a former Capitol Hill Staffer turned political blogger. She currently publishes two blogs, Spatterblog.com and BreakingBrown.com.

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