Among the lessons of this presidential election season, perhaps most salient is that the so-called Ordinary American is dead.
Or, should I say, the ordinary-American trope as political currency is bankrupt. We’re all ordinary Americans except, perhaps, for the benighted 1 percent. Might we drop the pretense?
For the record, this may be the first (and last) column in which I am permitted use of the term ordinary American. This is because my editors at The Washington Post Writers Group oppose its use (and I agree), suggestive as it is of some higher plane from which we in the nation’s capital view non-Washingtonians. It is more than mere suggestion, of course. It is rather a prevailing attitude, perhaps attributable to Washington’s relatively robust economy (government jobs skew the numbers), that folks out yonder have different concerns – somehow more ordinary – than the rest of us.
My first inkling of this communal detachment from the lives of most Americans occurred several years ago when I had recently arrived and joined a panel of journalists to discuss, of all things, ourselves! The first question to me was: “Kathleen, do you think the media are too elitist for ordinary Americans?”
If memory serves, my immediate response was an unladylike guffaw, followed by the observation that the answer was implicit in the question. Having lived most of my life outside the Beltway, standing in grocery and gas lines with those everyday Americans who remain so mysterious to the Washington tribe, I have often felt like Margaret Mead, summoned to television green rooms to explain the behaviors of the indigenous peoples.
Might we admit that we are all more ordinary than the people we elect to represent us – and that thus it should be? The notion that one presidential candidate relates more than another to the ordinary American’s everyday concerns is cringingly absurd. There’s nothing “everyday” about either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and why, really, would we want them to be?
I’m not sure we even know what we mean by ordinary anymore. In the best sense, we mean people who go to work every day, marry and raise families, pay their bills and taxes, serve their communities and country, and respect the difference between God and Caesar. Given the gradual degradation of these institutional concepts, both voluntary and owing to external pressures, one wonders what’s ordinary about them. As a political concept, the Ordinary American has become something of a cartoon character – an undereducated, overweight bloke who holds smarty-pants elites in contempt. And, you can be sure, vice versa.
Ordinary Americans and those who court them have become unwilling participants in a cynical charade. Forcing our aspiring leaders to pretend to be ordinary, rolling up their sleeves and slugging back a (fill in the blank) at the local pub/coffee shop (but never a Starbucks), chumming with people they’ve studiously avoided all their lives, is the most ludicrous of exercises and rewards the very pandering we loathe.
In possibly the most embarrassing political ad thus far, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour made a pitch to ordinary Americans to ante up $3 for a “New York Night” with the president and first lady, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and various others who will have paid thousands for the privilege of breaking bread together. It must be seen (http://ow.ly/bx5ZL).
Neither Obama nor Romney is remotely ordinary, needless to say. And neither is very good at faking it. Both bring substantial talents, a sterling career in Romney’s case and a smorgasbord of broadening experiences in Obama’s, including almost four years as president.
There’s no point in trying to portray Romney as an everyday kind of guy. From his lucky birth to his significant accomplishments, he is anything but ordinary. Trying to blunt his resume to make him more “likable” – perish that trivial pursuit while we’re at it – ultimately enhances the likelihood of the opposite result.
But neither can Obama make the case that Romney is out of touch after the Wintour ad. Or in the context of his own recent remarks that “the private sector is doing fine,” despite 23 million Americans out of work or underemployed.
Retiring both the term and the idea of “ordinary” (and attendant perfidies) would be a welcome development in any random year, but especially in this one. Who, after all, wants to be ordinary – or be deemed so by the more fortunate? The ordinary American is us. Extraordinary leadership is what we hope for.
Contact Parker, a columnist for The Washington Post, at firstname.lastname@example.org.