On Sunday, CNN will air an interview with Cindy McCain (see first link below) in which she expresses outrage about the "how many houses do you own, Johnny?" question that we and lots of others have been talking about. She's "offended" and thinks it is going too far to wonder about such things. After all, Cindy says, "My father had nothing...I'm proud of what my dad and my mother did and what they built and left me. And I intend to carry their legacy as long as I can."
"Their legacy." What might that mean? She will certainly be carrying their money around for a long time, as there is a lot of it. The fact of the matter is that, whatever the facts about her father's business dealings, Cindy did nothing to become obscenely wealthy besides being born into the right family. By virtue of that stroke of luck, she left the womb and immediately took up a place near the top of the business hierarchy.
Similarly, her husband had the luck to be born into the family of a Navy admiral, rather than, say, that of an enlisted man. Though admirals don't make nearly the amount of money wealthy businessmen like Cindy's daddy do, they do quite well financially, thank you. More importantly, they are part of the elite of another social sphere, that of the military, which, coupled with the business and political elites, actually makes most of the decisions about how American society works.
The great social critic C. Wright Mills made the most concise and powerful version of this argument about the true anti-democratic nature and structure of the American polity in his classic 1956 book The Power Elite. In a nutshell, Mills argued that the elite sector in each of these three spheres sets the agenda and makes the decisions for American society according to the logic of their (not the national) interest, while the masses (that'd be you and me) are systematically prevented from actually getting into positions to change anything. Outside academia, Mills' great book has been largely forgotten, but I think we might well find it useful in getting to the bottom of this business of 'elitism' in the current electoral campaign.
You see, the McCains are a kind of textbook example of Mills' argument. The unintelligent heiress of a business fortune and the unintelligent son of an admiral whose political career was made possible with his unintelligent wife's cash, neither of you in any way responsible for the lofty positions you now occupy, having attained them through no gifts of your own but only through the sheer stroke of fate, and now here you are, lording it over the plebes ('how many houses do we have again, Johnny? Oh, stop it, Cindypoo, and pass the caviar'), feigning 'outrage' when someone dares to note what is obvious to anyone who has eyes, all while pretending to be the common folk in this election, and trying to pass off your opponent as the 'elitist.'
I cannot adequately express my own outrage, Mrs. McCain, that people like you and your husband have been allowed even once to call Barack Obama an "elitist" without immediately being showered with various once-edible things in a state of advanced decomposition. This is a guy who grew up in single-parent family, biracial in a racially-biased society, who received no trust fund and no leg up into a career in his daddy's line of work, who paid his way through college and law school with government loans. Were and are there other Americans still more crushed by inequality and poverty than he was? Undoubtedly. But let's get real, Mrs. McCain. Those of us who are literate know who the real elitists in this election are.