Despite key differences between Democrats and Republicans, at the national conventions, both sought to convey the same message: “I feel your pain.” To make that message believable, the candidates attempted to cast themselves as the boy or girl next door. Underneath the flags and the jibes, the nervous grins and the insipid smiles, ran a constant theme: “I’m just like you.” I am the common man or woman.
Neither McCain nor Obama, however, exactly fits the portrait. “Common man” does not remind people of either Annapolis or Harvard. So it was necessary to highlight other factors: Obama’s parents, Joe Biden’s working-class background, Sarah Palin’s small-town credentials. Too-perfect stories about hard work, home and family. The image of the common man that emerged was a moose-hunting, street-fighting caricature.
The problem: There is no common man or woman. So no politician can embody this ideal. Obama, for instance, does not represent a melting pot. He has an individualized background and specific characteristics that affect the way he acts and thinks. There are, certainly, timeless values underlying American life. They depend not on random anecdotes, but on the way in which people translate their background and develop the moral sense necessary to make decisions. And one such value has been markedly absent from this campaign: authenticity.
The desire to have political leaders act like regular people admittedly has some justification. Citizens want their leaders to understand them. The idea is that we can trust people who “get it,” especially in the current economic landscape. Just because candidates can distill their backgrounds into shining examples of all-American lives doesn’t mean that they necessarily understand the people they seek to represent. The American people need much more than to recognize superficial similarities between themselves and political candidates: Leaders must be able to discuss honestly their influences and show clearly what they can bring to the table. Obama’s Harvard experience and McCain’s privileged background helped to shape them. How? This is a question we are not allowed to ask.
Authenticity does not mean elitism. In a search for leaders who have the vision to inspire and the determination to see their visions through, we should not value the distance between leaders and the people for its own sake. The conventional indicators of elite status — academic accomplishment, family background, wealth — simply do not measure character. The guidepost, for instance, should not become Obama’s presidency of the Harvard Law Review versus Palin’s mediocre grades. Academic achievement does not correlate to good judgment, moral responsibility or the ability to make the right decision under enormous pressure. Education opens our minds and enriches our options, but it doesn’t guarantee well-considered choices.
So we should resist attempts to use both working-class and elite backgrounds as solid indicators of a politician’s character. We need to know not only where our potential leaders come from, but where they are going. We need to analyze the decisions they have already made in order to predict their decision-making abilities in the future. Does that mean that the oldest candidate, with the longest history should win? Maybe, if his record suggests an ability to make good decisions.
The dichotomy between candidate Jo Bag-o’-donuts and candidate Elite Superstar obscures the more significant factor: The candidates’ actual qualifications. All candidates, regardless of their backgrounds, must be able to convince the public that they have the sense of judgment to take us down the right path when the going gets toughest. Politicians should prove to us who they are instead of giving us pale reflections of who they think we are.