It seems that ever since American voters turned on to Andrew Jackson in the 1824 campaign, being “a man of the people” has changed its definition in America.
It used to mean someone who had the best interests of our democracy in mind. A man of the people realized he was the people’s representative and their leader. He (and it was, until 2007, always a he) was someone the people could admire and respect.
But with Jackson began the tradition of the grossly unqualified candidate who rode in on his popularity as a military/war hero, with nothing else to recommend him for the office of president. People who had qualms about Jackson’s lack of experience, terrible personality, and unresolved war crimes were painted as elitists, sipping tea with their little finger extended while voting for John Quincy Adams. Adams, son of a Founder, was painted as an effete, useless rich old man who just wanted to reign as king.
This was new to American politics in 1824 and 1828, this use of the western frontier as the place where “real” Americans came from, having a moral virtue of honesty and straightforwardness. Suddenly to be born in a log cabin was a virtue. And from Harrison to Lincoln (great though he was, it was the “log-splitter” image that helped his candidacy) to Teddy Roosevelt (thank God he was a Rough Rider or it would have been over for him!) to George W. Bush, Americans have always fallen for the “plainspoken western outsider” who rides into Washington to clean house.
In 2008, the accurate description of working-class Americans that Barack Obama made are leading the right to call him an elitist. In these days of no western frontier, it is suddenly being in touch with the working class (though never actually from the working class) that stands in for the western sherriff. Being called an elitist is still the kiss of death.
Jackson was perhaps our worst president. Lincoln was (tied with Washington) our greatest. You can’t always tell how the “outspoken outsider” thing will play out. But we should, after nearly 200 years, be wary of falling for the “elitist” ploy, of watching candidates talk at the working class and then forget them completely, or talk about them even as they describe their economic plans designed to crush the working class more completely.
Let’s go back to what the Founders intended, which was choosing someone for president who:
–understands the principles of our democracy, and
–will suffer and withstand criticism to uphold them
Then, no matter what geographical or financial region the candidate comes from, we will know we have the right one.