New York Fashion Week wrapped up recently and I’m surprised there weren’t more boot-straps on the catwalks. I mean, all the politicians are wearing them these days. In fact, it seems impossible to run successfully for office without having pulled oneself out of the rubbish heap by one's own boot-straps. Does anyone else find the “I suffered more afflictions than you” rhetoric a little overwhelming?
I get that anyone running for office wants to make the “I've lived the American rags-to-riches dream” case. But I don’t think someone with a Harvard Law degree (Obama) or someone who lives on GM stock (Romney) qualifies as “underprivileged,” no matter the amount of rust on their car (again Obama) or the composition of their dining table (an ironing board, per Romney).
I also wonder how a “rags to riches” story helps make the “I feel your pain” argument. Most people in America don’t have a “rags to riches” story. The majority of us have a “rags-from-K-Mart” to “somewhat-nicer-rags-from-Macy’s” story: sometimes a slight rise, sometimes a slight fall, but not usually too dramatic a swing.
We’ve let the “boot-strap appeal “permeate our culture, and I’m as much a problem as anyone else. For example, I’m currently obsessed with the TV show “The Voice.” Very few of the contestants come to the show with what most of us would call a traditional upbringing. And you know you’re going to hear their sad story when the depressing background music starts playing in the middle of their introduction. In our household, we’ve started a game of guessing “what’s the affliction” every time someone comes on the screen.
I recognize that probably sounds insensitive. The truth is that people do overcome amazing hurdles, even in the political world. And some of those hurdles are higher than others. I'm proud to live in a culture that embraces entrepreneurship and drive, making it easier to get over those hurdles and allowing more people to earn their way to a better life and increased net worth.
At the same time, the current stress on these “humble beginnings” arguments insult those with truly humble beginnings -- or even middles. With so many people living below the poverty line and so many people struggling to find jobs, it's hard for me to believe that a Barack Obama or a Mitt Romney can truly identify with them. I know I can't, so I wouldn't try to pretend to do so. All I can try to do is try to help.
As the election drones on, and as long as there continues to be a rhetorical advantage to these arguments, they’re going to keep coming. Believe me, I feel your pain on that.