The Democratic primary season is upon us, so that means the field of 2020 (not the year, but the number of presidential candidates) will try to endear themselves to the electorate. This year’s crop of politicians – young and old – will employ a series of clichés that their predecessors did, making observers who have covered these contests every four years roll their eyes, cringe, and consume a glass of scotch.
One of the more popular tropes among those seeking the White House, or any public office for that matter, is informing everyone how impoverished they were growing up. Or, at the very least, their humble beginnings.
If you haven’t noticed it, this is how the presidential hopeful on the debate stage typically does it:
“Thanks for that question on small business, Anderson. Well, as you know, I was brought up in a family of eight, living in a two-room shack in Biloxi, MS. My father tried to live the American dream by starting his own business, repairing dolls – he called it A Doll’s House. We didn’t eat very much, relying on roadkill for dinner and rain for our water consumption. My mother was a sick woman, my two brothers had lice, and my sisters suffered from Dr. Strangelove Syndrome. So, yes, I was so poor as a kid. Now, to your question: No, I would not agree to a 5% tax increase on employers with fewer than ten employees.”
This may be an exaggeration, but it is a strategy you can expect to see as the primaries heat up. Minorities – Sen. Cory Booker (D-NY), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) – will talk about how racism tried to oppress them. The wealthy white candidates, like former Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), will brag about how they went to the bathroom in an outhouse and ate raw carrots for breakfast. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg will reveal how hard it was to find a new chauffeur.
Purpose of This Cliché
Highlighting your childhood poverty conveys several messages:
- The politician can relate to the average voter.
- Everything the candidate achieved was accomplished on his or her own.
- Poverty makes you more virtuous than a rich individual.
While the first two points might be true, the third one is deeply concerning.
Condensed, this means: Poverty is virtuous; wealth is odious. And this is how society generally divides and perceives the impecunious and the affluent. Unfortunately, it produces an unhealthy dish of envy, with an appetizer of resentment and a dessert of disdain.
Politicians exploit this and use it to their advantage – both through campaigning and policymaking.
Does Wealth Change You?
According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 70% of lottery winners end up broke within five years of hitting the jackpot. Just because they have suddenly become millionaires doesn’t mean they have morphed into stalwarts of fiscal prudence. They are still the same people, except now they have $10 million in the bank. If their financial management skills were deplorable before striking it rich, they would still be unable to manage their dollars and cents in this new life, sending them to bankruptcy court.
The same principle applies to someone who made it big by founding an enterprise, writing a book, or getting signed by the Boston Red Sox.
If you were a decent, honest, hard-working, and loyal person when you were poor, your wealth would not erase these attributes. Instead, your riches will give you the opportunity to amplify these qualities, not contradict them. On the other hand, if you were a dishonest, uncouth, ungrateful, and lazy person in your days of poverty, your sudden wealth will not reverse these characteristics. The millions may afford the luxury of accentuating your crude nature.
Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 19th century about compensation and the laws of karma: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” Simply put: Decisions matter; for every action, there’s a reaction.
The Brookings Institution listed three simple rules to join the middle class:
- Finish high school.
- Wait until you’re 21 to get married and have kids.
- Get a full-time job.
If you scrimp and save, you will have financial security. If you wait until marriage to have children, you will have a more stable and prosperous household (this is shown in the data). If you eat right and exercise, you will live longer. If you are grateful for everything in your life, you’ll be a happier person.
On the other hand, if you spend every dollar you receive, have kids out of wedlock, eat junk food, watch television all day, and complain about life, you will not have a fruitful existence.
How to Get Elected
Republicans and Democrats are guilty of utilizing the hardscrabble trope to their advantage. Even President Donald Trump used it by saying he was given a small loan of $1 million by his father.
…voters will most likely give a chance to the downtrodden latchkey kid…
That said, imagine if a candidate discussed how he played polo as a child, spent his summers on a sailboat, and interned at his dad’s law firm after college. He’d be lucky if he made it to the third debate. For whatever reason, instead of casting a ballot on the content of a candidate’s character or policies proposed, voters will most likely give a chance to the downtrodden latchkey kid who grew up in government housing.
Politics would be boring if candidates continually expressed how great the nation is without proposing changes or improvements. Then there wouldn’t be the popcorn-inducing entertainment every two and four years. Everyone would just shake hands and nod, leaving the press starved for headlines. On a broader level, if the only way to get elected is to embellish a country’s weaknesses and ignore its strengths, we are addicted to negativity and perpetual moaning. There has to be a better way.