How We View Our Ruling Class

Earlier I dismissed today’s giant WaPo profile of Mitt the Preppie as a nothing-burger, but am having some second thoughts based on the possibility that anecdotes from the piece get into the political bloodstream. Aside from the suspected-gay-bullying incident (which Mitt says he doesn’t remember–a bigger indictment, if he isn’t just lying, than the incident itself, given all the witnesses who vividly remember it), it’s always a bit troublesome when regular people are presented with the formative images of very privileged people now seeking their votes.

I remember that in 2004 Kerry’s staff were terrified of what they called the “Swiss boarding school problem”–the fact that even though John Kerry’s immediate family wasn’t very wealthy, he got a world-class private education thanks to a wealthy relative. Turns out the attack ads, when they came, focused on Kerry’s war record and anti-war protests rather than his earlier background, but it could have become a problem.

If they care at all, people of modest means tend to react to exposure to massive privilege in two ways: envy or resentment. I’ll let the great British punk group The Jam illustrate these via two videos. First, there’s envy, viz. this cover of the classic Kinks song “David Watts:”

Then there’s resentment, as expressed in “Mr. Clean,” which is as fine an example of good old fashioned class hatred as you’ll ever see, if you can ignore the British context in which the Ruling Class sometimes takes the bus to work:

Before you suggest this is just an excuse to show some old rock videos, bear with me: “David Watts” is precisely the sort of sentiment Republicans want you to feel in thinking of Mitt as a sort of American Beauty Rose: a guy who has been carefully honed through the best education money can buy and the best experience at the best consulting firms as the perfect instrument to “fix” an afflicted American economy. He’s the best of us, and we’d all like to be that guy.

“Mr. Clean,” on the other hand, represents what Team Mitt must fear most: that extended exposure to Romney will make voters begin to dislike him not just for his weaknesses and foibles but precisely for his proud self-perfection, his stellar membership in a tiny group of people who can ruin our lives with the click of a mouse even if they are but dimly aware of our existence.

These are some pretty primal emotions, and probably the kind of thing that drove George W. Bush and his handlers to take such great care making him out to be a redneck. Maybe these feelings won’t be stirred up by a profile in a newspaper that most Americans will never read, but you can bet the Romney campaign is spending a lot of time hoping that voters will see David Watts rather than Mr. Clean in the images of their candidate as unvoidably a charter member of the American ruling class.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.