Heepism vs. Elitism

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. But time passed, bringing us FDR and Oprah and other facets of modernity. Now Americans believe that government exists to create new rights for them, and to solve their problems, and that it can do so only if politicians empathize with voters' conditions and "feelings," and that perhaps politicians cannot do so if they do not live lives of conspicuous normality.

Actually, the politics of Uriah Heepism—histrionic humility—and flamboyant empathy had infected politics by 1840. The country was in its worst depression to date and the Democratic Party, which had held the presidency for 12 years, was in bad odor. When the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison, a hostile newspaper said that all Democrats would need to do was "give him a barrel of hard cider" and a pension and he would be content to "sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin." Whigs saw opportunity in the insult, saying that the remedy for hard times was hard cider. Harrison had lived in a log cabin only briefly, and by the time he ran for president the house on his Ohio estate was grand enough that his campaign had to tone it down for public viewings. Never mind. Log cabins and cider jugs became symbols that propelled Harrison to the White House.

A story, perhaps apocryphal but certainly plausible, is that a child once began a school essay with this sentence: "Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin he built himself." Although Lincoln did not build it, being born in such a very 'umble dwelling was for him an excellent career move.

Charges of "elitism" are hardy perennials, but surely Americans can accept two axioms. The first is: The central principle of republican government is representation, under which the people do not decide issues, they decide who shall decide. The second is: Elections decide not whether elites shall rule but which elites shall rule.

Robert Alphonso Taft (1889–1953), the son of President William Howard Taft, became known as "Mr. Republican" during his 14 years as a U.S. senator from Ohio. He was a conservative representing a state whose electorate included many farmers and blue-collar industrial workers, and opponents charged that he was out of touch with such ordinary people. In 1947 a reporter asked Mrs. Taft, "Do you think of your husband as a common man?" Aghast, she replied:

"Oh, no, no! The senator is very uncommon. He was first in his class at Yale and first in his class at the Harvard Law School. We wouldn't permit Ohio to be represented in the Senate by just a common man."

In 1950, Taft was re-elected in a landslide.