When rich people run for office, they typically spend their campaign time doing two distinct things: (1) they spend upwards of five or six hours a day calling the wealthy and the super-wealthy for money; and (2) they spend the rest of their time at "grassroots" events, parades, or debates trying pretend that they didn't just spend the bulk of their day courting max out checks and listening to the needs of the 1%.
The ritual is the same regardless of the "grassroots" event. The sleeves get rolled up. The blazer comes off. Occasionally, a corn dog is thrust into a candidates hand to really up the "common man" factor. If you can get a photo op with your candidate at a factory or a plant, even better.
Some wealthy politicos play the game exceptionally well. Celebrity Sarah Palin is the Queen of Commonness to her supporters, despite the fact that she's worth some $12 million. Other D.C. types? They lack the finesse to pull of faux authenticity so authentically. The cloak of commonness is perhaps never as ill-fitting as it when it is donned by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
Earlier this year, Gingrich caused a scandal when he ditched his campaigning to go on a luxury Greek cruise. Staffers quit over the incident, while Gingrich defended the vacation as much-needed "me" time. Now, however, with his poll numbers rising, Gingrich is trying to put a different shade of lipstick on the succulent pig roasting over a crackling fire. Gingrich now claims his fancy vacay was part fact-finding mission:
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said his luxury cruise vacation through the Greek Isles in June gave him a better understanding of Greece's debt crisis.
While speaking at an event in Iowa, Gingrich said he was heavily influenced while visiting Greece with his wife Callista, according to MSNBC.
"An observation strategically about where we are ... was very much influenced when I visited Greece in June and talked to people what they were faced with in Greece," Gingrich said. "And I listened to them."
I'm sure the conversations with the white-gloved waiters about living in a bankrupt nation was fascinating, and Gingrich probably furrowed his brow in feigned support as he lifted his bubbling champagne glass up to his common man lips.
Beyond being absurd on its face, the Gingrich spin is a perfect example of "class-washing." A candidate's luxe life is put through the wringer and voila, a crisp, cuff-linked white collar shirt is miraculously transformed into a blue collar workshirt with grease stains on it. It's why some candidates make sure that fancy foreign cars are placed in family members' names while a good ol' American Ford Focus or Chevy truck is used to trek across the state. It's why they schedule a "roundtable" at a diner with ordinary folks in Peoria while making sure to not bring the cameras to the $2,500 a plate fundraiser afterwards.
They shake hands with the masses. Double-clasped handshakes, for added "empathy." They kiss babies. They listen intently to a supporter's story (and wonder how they can include it in their next speech). They show sympathy with a hand on the shoulder of an out-of-work mom. They show empathy by hugging the student saddled with student loan debt.
They campaign. Then they move on.
The fleeting sympathy exhibited at campaign events can often be genuine. But it is often fleeting. One need only look at our federal politics to see that too many members on both sides of the aisle choose to cater to their wealthy call time donors than to the throngs they meet on the trail.
Can wealthy politicians empathize with the plight of the American working class? Of course they can. Not all politicians grew up in privilege. Vice President Joe Biden is a classic example of an elected official whose working class roots guide him today. And even among those who were lucky enough to be born into the 1%, wealth and a just heart are not mutually exclusive by any measure.
But there is no escaping the fact that far too often, our millionaire representatives preach sympathy on the campaign trail and commit legislative sins against the working class once elected.
Five years ago, then-Senator Barack Obama spoke about the massive empathy deficit:
“I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit -- the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us -- the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this -- when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers -- it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.” - Barack Obama, 2006
It's proven remarkably difficult for the Newt Gingriches of the world, the Darrel Issas, and the Michelle Bachmanns to step out of their comfortable shoes and into the worn shoes of those who journeyed through this troubled economy for far too long. Those in Congress who do sympathize or empathize with the 99% are often drowned out by crystal-clinking chatter of the D.C. cocktail fundraising circuit.
As a threshold matter, we need to make it easier for non-millionaires to run for and compete for public office. Yes, prickly issue of campaign finance reform, I'm looking at you.
In the meantime, while juicing out empathy from the dry lemon that is a cold-hearted Congress is likely a futile task, even feigned sympathy is valuable if it leads to some legislative action.
And that's why Occupy Wall Street is so important.
Because while it's easy to shake the hand of a supporter at a county fair and move on, it's not easy to shake off the narrative-changing protests that are still taking place across the country. Whatever the end result of the protests, they can and have caused members of Congress to perk up their ears and, at the very least, listen. Some members of Congress will give OWS protestors the same amount of attention Gingrich gave to the Greek workers during that luxury cruise. Others, however, will afford the movement and its growing voice a longer listen. Perhaps that sliver of sympathy is all we can expect out of this Congress. Perhaps that's the best of a bad situation -- until we get OWS to occupy seats in Congress and bring true representation to the 99%.