THE BLOG
04/21/2008 09:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Elite Get Tough

Originally published in the Washington Independent

Sen. Barack Obama's opponents are still working to exploit the flap over his remarks in San Francisco, gleefully labeling him an "elitist."

"I don't think it helps to divide our country into one America that is enlightened and one that is not," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) charged. "If you want to be the president of all Americans, you need to respect all Americans." Steve Schmidt, an aid for Sen. John McCain, piled on. "It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," he claimed.

Portraying Obama as a pompous, Harvard-educated elitist, critics have mocked his diction, his manner, even his accent. While it may seem surprising to find a black man from a broken family fighting charges of snobbery, anti-elitism has been a familiar feature of American politics since the Republic's early days. Since Richard M. Nixon perfected the tactic in the 1960s, it has become a particularly effective tool for derailing liberal Democrats from Northern industrial states. Indeed, since the 1960s, white Southern Baptists who could roll a convincing "y'all" off their tongues have been the only Democrats to capture the White House.

To end the long drought, Obama might have to tap into the fighting spirit of his fellow Harvard alumni -- Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Those men overcame their privileged backgrounds, cultivating reputations for toughness that appealed to ordinary citizens.

Resentment against the swells became a staple of presidential politics in the 1820s, when Andrew Jackson, a former general and substantial slaveholder, become king of the common man. As the franchise expanded to the unpropertied, Jackson defeated the Boston Brahmin John Quincy Adams in 1828, laying to rest the once-dominant principle that the masses should submit to the rule of their natural betters. Eight years later, the opposition Whigs cemented this new style of presidential politics, when they linked their candidate, William Henry Harrison, a Virginia aristocrat and military hero, to humble life in a log cabin.

But if the Jacksonian era made anti-elitism a touchstone of American politics, it certainly did not mark the exit of patrician princes from presidential campaigns. Men to the manner born -- with prominent family ties, inherited wealth or elite educations -- have frequently occupied the White House -- to the present day, in fact.

Four of the last six presidents (George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Gerald R. Ford) have held degrees from Yale or Harvard. The current incumbent embodies this seeming paradox. How did the son of a president and grandson of a senator, scion of inherited wealth, graduate of Andover, Yale and Harvard, pass himself off as the ultimate good ol' boy -- the regular guy everybody wants to share a beer with, even if Bush doesn't drink beer?

More important, how did anti-elitism -- a charge which never stuck to liberal Democrats like Roosevelt and Kennedy whatever their background and style -- become a potent weapon against liberalism?

Certainly, no president should have been more vulnerable to charges of snobbery than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The descendant of Dutch patroons -- the aristocrats who settled the Hudson River valley in the 17th century -- FDR lived out the life of the American ruling class. He had private tutors, attended Groton, considered the most elite of the English-style boarding schools, and had admission to Harvard guaranteed by family connections. The cigarette holder and pince nez placed him among the snootiest of Americans.

But Roosevelt's dedicated efforts to shield ordinary Americans from what he called the "hazards and vicissitudes of life," his congenial temperament and his zest for the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics more than compensated for his aristocratic background. FDR also reveled in the opposition his presidency provoked among his fellow sons of privilege. Never before had the forces of selfishness, FDR told a massive rally at Madison Square Garden in 1936, "been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me. They hate Roosevelt -- and I welcome their hatred."

Kennedy was also the pampered child of an extremely privileged background. With his erudition, his unmistakable accent and his consummate style, Kennedy should have been easy target for populist scorn. But unlike many liberals of his age -- twice-defeated presidential standard-bearer Adlai E. Stevenson prominent among them -- Kennedy felt no squeamishness about power. He enjoyed exercising it in the service of domestic reform, foreign policy and in political struggle with his rivals.

But in 1968, Nixon changed the debate. A man who seethed with resentment against the elites he felt lorded over him with their superior connections and Ivy League educations, the never-popular Nixon suffered crushing loses in the 1960 presidential campaign and his 1962 race for the California governorship. By the end of the 1960s, however, Nixon would embody the concerns of millions of white, middle-class Americans unmoored by the turmoil of that tumultuous decade.

Appealing to the "forgotten American" and the "silent majority," Nixon stoked anger against an out-of-touch liberal establishment that turned up its nose at the values of ordinary Americans. Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew sneered at bureaucrats, the media ("nattering nabobs of negativism") and the intelligentsia (the "effete corps of impudent snobs"). They attracted working class Democrats to the conservative fold by attacking the cultural hauteur and smug superiority of the privileged. In the process, they helped the Republican Party shed its long association with the country club set.

Nixon wrote the playbook that almost every future Republican would follow -- link Democrats to a condescending elite of opera tickets and Grey Poupon. By making himself into a pork rind-loving, cowboy-boot-wearing Texan, George H. W. Bush (of Andover and Yale) played this hand to discredit the son of immigrants, Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

In recent years, as the Democratic Party became an uneasy coalition of young activists, affluent social liberals, union labor and minority voters, this strategy has also become a key component of Democratic primary campaigns. In 1984, Walter F. Mondale used it to undermine Gary Hart's "yuppie" campaign. When Hart left the race, one pundit wagged, there will be no trans-Atlantic Perrier pipeline, no national quiche stamps program.

And, this year, witnesses the astonishing transformation of Hillary Clinton -- once reviled by the right as the ultimate latte liberal -- into the candidate of "pinochle and the American dream." The charge of elitism has stung liberal Democrats -- especially those insurgents who tried to move the party beyond its union labor base, so that it would appeal to growing population of educated professionals and wired workers, the type of Americans who actually drink lattes.

To defuse these attacks, Obama needs to counter-punch vigorously against his two multimillionaire opponents. And he seems to be doing just that. He also needs to remind voters of where he came from.

Obama's education and accomplishments should not distance him from ordinary Americans, but instead showcase an authentic striver, a member of the meritocracy attuned to the perils and the promise of American life. Like FDR's fight with polio and Kennedy's Catholic heritage, Obama's life includes struggle and his politics need to embrace the beneficent use of power.

If Obama can do this, he might finally lay to rest the phony populism of Nixon that has dominated U.S. elections for the last four decades.

Bruce J. Schulman is the William Huntington Professor of History at Boston University and the author of "The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics" and Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism.