24 Jan 2012

It is privilege, not wealth, that Americans abhor

One of the standard questions in focus groups for American voters is: how do you see the candidate if he or she were your neighbour?

This was one recent answer. “When you mention Mitt Romney I think of high hedges.”

High hedges are loaded with snootiness. In our street in Washington we put up a fence a seven years ago around our small front garden to protect our young children from running into traffic. The neighbours didn’t like it. It was the only fence on the street. It, apparently, gave the impression that we didn’t want to be part of the community.

These were just some of the mutterings and we are not talking about the Berlin Wall. This was a waist high see through fence, erected for child safety. Their misgivings seemed odd in a country that cherishes private property and the right to act like the king of your castle. But there it is.

So consider the insult intended by high hedges. It whiffs of exclusivity. Americans don’t resent Mitt Romney’s money or that he made most of it as a venture capitalist, but they abhor any hint of entitlement or privilege.

So the fact that he pays less than 15 per cent tax on an annual investment income of more than 20 million dollars – a hundred times the Prime Minister’s yearly pay package –  is not nearly as damaging as his casual offer of a $10,000 bet to ex-candidate Rick Perry, his off-the-cuff remark to unemployed voters in Florida that he too didn’t have a job, or indeed his dithering over publishing his tax returns.

He is in danger of reminding voters of that fateful George Bush Sr moment in the 1992 campaign, which he lost against Bill Clinton. Bush was filmed handling some milk cartoons at a supermarket check out with the curled lip of befuddlement as if he had never done the shopping before.

And it’s not just Republicans who are guilty of this. Senator John Kerry – worth half a billion dollars thanks to his wife, the Heinz Ketchup heiress – was filmed wind surfing in the 2004 campaign which he lost against George W Bush, thinking it was a rugged, sporty thing to do. Only the rich – and the French – go windsurfing.

It was all compounded when Kerry turned up at a rally in a Pennsylvania mining town wearing Italian shoes without socks. Only the super rich or the super poor don’t bother with socks in this country.

The trap for Romney whose entire campaign hinges on his ability to fix America Inc and make lots of jobs and dosh, is that he looks and sounds like a man who is defined by how he spends it and not how he earned it.

Tweets by @mattfrei

3 reader comments

  1. StuartM says:

    I don’t know much about US culture and society but it is interesting that the “abhor privilege and entitlement”. What is strange is their feelings on this in relation to their desire to rush over to the UK for Royal Weddings, their interest in visiting Royal Palaces and their general interest in our Royal Family – because you don’t get much more extreme when it comes to privilege and entitlement. And its’ not just an interest in history because they closely follow new events (e.g. the royal Wedding in 2011).

    (Sorry – not direct;y relevant to your discussion).

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    Matt,

    Loved the “fence story.” :-)

    What the Americans STILL haven’t got through their heads is that capitalism IS unearned privilege. Always has been, always will be.

    Once that penny drops you might get some action. Until then……as you were.

  3. sue_m says:

    What a pity if the Americans can be fooled into thinking the very wealthy aren’t privileged just because they hide it on their occasional visits into the world of the regular joe!

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