I don't remember exactly when I started to get a little tired of the phrases "blue-collar," "small-town" and "working-class." Maybe it was during the Democratic National Convention, when Michelle Obama spent the better part of her prime-time speech refashioning her Hawaiian-raised, Harvard Law Review-editing husband as a meat-and-potatoes line operator.
Maybe it was the 400th time I heard Sen. Joe Biden referred to as a "scrappy kid from Scranton." Or maybe it was during Gov. Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention, when I learned that people from small towns are responsible for "the hardest work in America." (Unless, of course, that work is community organizing. Can you say "cushy"?)
Every election year, it's the same dog-and-pony show -- well-fed bureaucrats across the country try to convince the American public that they grew up in poverty, lugging wood planks up steep hills or subsisting on government cheese or what have you.
Of course, the facts rarely agree. National-level politicians and their kin are by definition wealthier than most Americans, and their backgrounds are often not as rugged and underprivileged as they would have you believe. When it comes down to it, Barack Obama is the son of an economist and an anthropologist, Joe Biden is a middle-class sales manager's son and I'm pretty sure Cindy McCain didn't win those $280,000 diamond earrings in a church raffle.
But what's more, none of this matters one iota, because the setting of a political candidate's upbringing and his or her current financial situation have absolutely no bearing on the candidate's fitness for public office. None. Not a bit. The requirement that every person on a presidential ticket fake a hardscrabble background, vigorously hide all traces of personal wealth and drool over the working class is a cynical political tactic, and a stupid one at that.
Now, I'm not bothered by this election's monomaniacal emphasis on America's blue-collar voters. Those voters have specific concerns, and it behooves both candidates to address them at length. What bothers me is the implicit claim behind all this blue-collar rhetoric: that being (or having once been) a member of the working class functions as a sort of moral skeleton key.
Consider a recent ad from the Obama campaign in which Biden credits his Scranton upbringing for his values of "responsibility, determination, respect," and "(standing) up for the dignity of all our families." Tucked away in that commercial's subtext is this assumption: If Biden had been born to a pair of corporate lawyers in Seattle, he wouldn't be responsible or determined or respectful, and he wouldn't give a damn about his family's dignity. In fact, he would probably choke puppies for sport.
This blue-collar litmus test is part of the reason America was so floored by the discovery that formerSen. John Edwards is actually kind of a jerk. We've all bought into the myth that if your daddy was a mill worker, you must be a righteous and upstanding citizen.
Well, I'll say it here: It's not true. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, and I can say with confidence that small towns don't have a monopoly on trustworthiness, compassion or hard work. My hometown has a lot of wonderful people in it, but it also has a few grouches, bigots and garden-variety assholes. No town (or social stratum, for that matter) can be defined by a single adjective. You can be lazy in Scranton, and you can be a workaholic in Malibu; our job as informed voters is not to assess those towns based on the income level of the people who live there, but to separate the townspeople with good ideas from the townspeople with bad ideas. Choosing a president the right way has everything to do with policies and vting records and nothing to do with blue-collar roots or personal net worth. A thousand things about McCain make him a bad candidate for president, but the fact that his wife owns more real estate than McDonald's isn't one of them.
I fully expect that this election will continue to revolve around wage earners from the Midwest, as perhaps it should. But let's not kid ourselves: Obama's talk about his single-parent upbringing and Palin's yammering about her small Alaska town are forms of political currency, not absolute validations of their humanity. No politician should ever be judged solely on his or her roots, and in November, if the Democrats somehow manage to lose this election, I'll blame Barack Obama and Joe Biden, not their zip codes.