One of the most pernicious delusions that plagues American political discourse is the association of wealth with what once was called “class.” I use the word in the same sense John F. Kennedy did when he commented simply but accurately after hearing a particularly snarling, whiny statement by his 1960 opponent, Richard Nixon: “No class.” Class is, after all, a slippery concept; like obscenity, you only know it when you see it. “No class” is much more concrete, and it seems to be the defining trait of the modern Republican Party, and despite his untold (heh) millions, Mitt Romney has no class.
But then again, neither do his supporters, so, as my mother used to say in her sweet, charitable way about really unattractive couples, “It’s nice they found each other.” Say what you will about people who, despite their membership in America’s most absurdly overprivileged class, derive what little happiness they evidently get from it by sticking it to everyone below them, but it’s pretty much the opposite of classy. Calling single women sluts, calling the retired, disabled, and the working poor moochers, and dismissing whole cultures as inferior to others deserves a lot of adjectives, but classy most certainly isn’t among them.
In the new Gilded Age, class, in the economic sense, and class in the more traditional sense, have become all but mutually exclusive. The richer you are, the more likely you are to be ostentatious, vulgar, rude, and grasping, traits which, unsurprisingly, are projected onto everyone but your bad, classless, self. Back in the “quaint” (h/t John Yoo!) days of noblesse oblige, rich people busied themselves in their spare time, however ineffectively, with something they called “charity.” Today, Karl Rove’s corrupt and loathsome Crossroads GPS is, for tax and disclosure (avoidance) purposes, a “charity,” although its purpose is the diametric opposite of the dictionary definition of the term.
In the last Gilded Age even the Robber Barons had marginally productive day jobs, monopolistic and government subsidized though they usually were. They built and made things: railroads, steel, oil, cars, consumer goods, retail empires, and what have you. Though they were no slouches at conspicuous consumption, union-busting, and outright manipulation of the government to suit their own needs, even the most ruthless left something of value behind; and many, like Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, spent enormous sums to uplift the lower orders as guilt and the fear of Hell beset them in their dotage.
Back then America’s plutocrats aspired to wealth and power in the same way they do today, but perhaps more because of than despite their generally humbler roots, they knew that money and class were two different things and acted accordingly. Today’s plutocrats no longer worry about such errant minutia; they’ve got theirs and now they want yours, too, for literally less than nothing in return.
Worse, they want everyone else to foot the bill. From hoteliers, sports team owners, real estate developers and on and on demanding public subsidies for their paltry and fraudulent contribution to what they so grandly call “job creation,” to polluters, looters, and banksters whining about “regulation” and taxes they don’t even pay, the world has never seen such a bunch of self-entitled freeloaders. And yet, thanks to Citizens (!) United, they can now spend their excess millions purchasing government policy for pennies on the dollar. Not so classy, in my humble opinion.
For all his flaws, and Lordy there are a million of them, what President Obama demonstrates in the video above is that he has something Mitt Romney can never buy: class. Note the distinct lack of snarling, gloating, and lying. Note the fact that, rather than shouting to the mountaintops about Romney’s absurd and un-American statements, his comments are in response to a question about them, and delivered without any unseemly relish. He may be acting, but at least he’s playing the right role.
That’s why, as Ana Marie Cox put it in an excellent Guardian op/ed today (h/t Dirigo), Romney is a “Roomba caught in a corner.” Want to see class warfare? Here it is, and Obama is winning, hands down.