May 7, 2008

Appealing to the Common Man


I saw this interesting article in the Washington Post about how presidential candidates since the days of William Henry Harrison have tried to make themselves seem like the common man. It's especially interesting for me since I'm reading a book on Abraham Lincoln, our original "log cabin" president.

The article says:
Identifying with the common man has been a requisite in presidential elections for almost two centuries. But the stakes are especially high in a race largely defined by an economic crisis, and campaign experts say the candidates have gone especially far in their appeals.

In the past six weeks, Clinton hammered down a shot of Crown Royal whiskey -- not necessarily the first choice of the workingman -- and chased it with a beer. Obama visited a Pennsylvania sports bar and sampled a Yuengling after making sure it wasn't "some designer beer." Clinton told stories about learning to shoot behind the cottage her grandfather built. Obama went bowling.

The article also says:
Presidential candidates have strived relentlessly downward in social class ever since the 1840s, when William Henry Harrison created what historians now call the "common-man myth." While most of his peers campaigned from their estates, Harrison traveled the country and spoke under a banner depicting a log cabin and a bottle of hard cider. He won the presidency by a landslide, and his campaign model became the new standard.

With few exemptions since, American voters have picked presidents who mimic the public's most ordinary habits -- men who regularly mention drinking, or NASCAR, or old-fashioned farm work. Ronald Reagan liked to be photographed chopping wood. George H.W. Bush spoke longingly about pork rinds. Bill Clinton stopped at McDonald's while on the campaign trial, even when it required a side trip. And George W. Bush is a champion brush-clearer.

It's really sad that politicians feel as if they have to "take it down" in order to appeal to voters. Why can't people be themselves? After all, we're electing a person who is supposed to understand the issues on a deeper level beyond common understanding. Our national story is one of triumph over adversity, and in order to triumph over adversity, we have to either have it or create it. Maybe that's why they have to act like they're everyday people. It's strange to see Hillary, a former First Lady, trying to fool people by slamming the economists who are rightly criticizing her wacky gas tax "holiday" plan as nothing more than a cheap gimmick to appeal to the working class. In some cases, the candidates have to "dumb it down" for votes. Kristof wrote about this a couple of months ago. I think it's the American way.

I think this "common-man myth" has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that it allows real common people to see themselves in their leaders. The disadvantage--and I might argue that this outweighs the advantage--is that it creates a sense of phoniness and prevents our leaders from dropping their pretensions in order to really see the problems that people face.

(Image of Homer Simpson from here.)

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