Grits and Gullability March 14th, 2012
I was struck late last week by all of the coverage of Mit Romney’s proclamation that he likes grits. It struck me because it made me sad. You know there’s a presidential primary afoot when a comment like this makes headline news.
I’m always disappointed when I see a presidential campaign turned into a three-ring circus of gaffes and stunts. Granted some of this is the fault of the candidates themselves. (Really, who makes a ten thousand dollar bet during a debate?) But much of the blame rests on our shoulders. The antics that candidates go through to curry our favor are largely determined by us. Much like television networks wouldn’t air reality shows if we didn’t watch them, politicians wouldn’t go to such lengths to prove that they are just like the rest of us if we didn’t make them.
And here’s the irony of the whole thing: Presidential candidates are not just like the rest of us. Quite frankly, we should be grateful for that. (The West Wing aptly addressed this issue in its third season.) The President of the United States is still, arguably, the most powerful person in the world. This is a person who can veto acts of Congress, and wage war for 60 days without congressional consent, and sign bills into law. This is a big, damn deal. I don’t want to hand those reins over to just anyone. The bar for this job should be set far higher than the litmus test that unfortunately emerged out of the Bush/Gore election in 2000: “Would I want to have a beer with this person?”
Somehow, though, we always manage to distill things down to these asinine measures of relatability. And this is how we end up with Hilary Clinton taking a shot of Crown Royal in 2008, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden attending a NASCAR race in 2011, and Mit Romney liking grits in 2012. We force them to work for their street cred, and stunts like these are the price they pay. But why do we do this? Why do we ask politicians to posture and pander this way? We ought to find it patronizing.
The net net of it is that we care that our elected officials understand our lives. For how can we reliably expect them to represent us as governors if they know nothing of who we are – our passions, tastes, and challenges? And I think this is a valid stance to take, although I disagree with the way we have chosen to take it. We have chosen to evaluate a candidate’s ability to understand his constituents in part based on his ability to participate in local traditions, and I’m not sure how accurate a barometer that is for what we’re actually trying to measure. Just because Mit Romney tries and likes grits doesn’t mean that he has any meaninful understanding of what life is like for middle class Southerners. Just because Newt Gingrich can crack a joke about gun racks doesn’t mean that truly cares about cultures that value hunting. These are two men who, respectively, are worth an estimated $250 million, and have had the power in their hands to shut down the federal government. Any semblance of a life that most Americans would consider “normal” is nothing but a speck in these men’s rearview mirrors. At some level we know that, which is why we make them attend pancake suppers and drink PBR.
This isn’t to say that I think retail politics are all a bunch of hooey. Sitting down and having substantive conversations with individuals from various walks of life can be a valuable way to understand the needs of different demographic segments. There’s nothing wrong with putting a face on a statistic. It’s just that we take it too far. The fact remains that to presidential candidates most of us will always be statistics – and that’s okay! I can’t reasonably expect any U.S. President to know me personally. But what I can reasonably expect is that he understands how his decisions will likely impact me (and every other demographic segment) and bear that in mind while leading our country.
When you get right down to it, I don’t care whether Mit Romney likes grits. Or arugala. Or red wine. Or macaroni and cheese. He can eat grits morning, noon, and night and it doesn’t mean that his decisions as President will benefit Southerners. I care that he cares about the people he may some day represent. And it’s too bad that we can’t come up with a better way to determine if he – or anybody else, for that matter - does.