Heepism vs. Elitism

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, September 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Heepism vs. Elitism


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

Voters today demand empathy from candidates in a way that voters never did from austere George Washington or crusty John Adams.

We are so very 'umble.

--Uriah Heep In "David Copperfield"

Cognitive dissonance--believing, sincerely and simultaneously, contradictory ideas--might be considered a genteel mental disorder were it not such a nearly universal phenomenon that it seems less a disorder than part of the natural order of things. It afflicts--if it really is an affliction rather than a normal accommodation to life's ambiguities--individuals and collectivities, such as the American electorate.

Today, Americans seem to demand a government that is an omnipresent and omni provident cornucopia of entitlements, but that also is small and imposes low taxes. Dissonance? This is cognitive cacophony.

Now Americans are about to choose a president who--judging by political rhetoric, which responds to voters' expectations--is supposed to be an economic wizard, a national pastor, a Florence Nightingale in providing health care and a diplomat of Metternichian guile and Franciscan goodness. But Americans also are being plied and belabored with dueling warnings that the two presidential candidates from whom they must choose, both of them U.S. senators, are--Heaven forfend!--not common men.

John McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, married a wealthy woman and is supposed to be scorched to a cinder by the disapproval of a nation that is encouraged to think that he has too many houses. Barack Obama, with his two Ivy League degrees (Columbia, Harvard Law School), lives in an expensive home in Chicago's tony Hyde Park section, an academic enclave hard by the University of Chicago.

Well. "The house, situated in a landscaped clearing on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, is a large rambling structure faced with stucco and fieldstone." So reads the National Park Service Web site on Springwood, where Franklin Roosevelt "was born to a family of wealth and social position" and where he is buried. This estate at Hyde Park was where young Franklin learned "the things that a young gentleman of his class should know," including "horsemanship, rowing, fishing, sailing, and ice boating" on the river.

People who believe in architectural determinism should believe that FDR's housing must have prevented him from empathizing with common folks. And nowadays voters demand empathy from candidates in a way that voters never did of austere George Washington or crusty John Adams.

At the nation's founding, Americans believed that government exists to protect people in the exercise of their pre-existing "natural" rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. …

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