I don’t know whether this was the intention — one certainly assumes so — but the handful of new investigations into Mitt Romney’s investment arrangements in Switzerland, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands have come at a particularly interesting moment in the US electoral cycle. With four months to go, both presidential candidates are frantically drawing lines in the sand: Each is arguing that he offers American voters a clear and distinct choice on health care, immigration, taxation — and that his opponent offers something quite different.
On purpose or otherwise, the tales of the Cayman Islands make clear that Romney and President Barack Obama are offering American voters another kind of choice as well. One of the words most frequently deployed during the midterm elections and the now-forgotten Republican primaries was “elite,” usually as a term of opprobrium and usually by Republicans — but sometimes by Democrats, too.
In running for the Senate, Christine O’Donnell had a campaign ad that declared: “I didn’t go to Yale ... I’m YOU.” Attacking Obama, Rand Paul called the president a “liberal elitist” who “believes that he knows what is best for people”. Occupy Wall Street rose up against the “1 per cent” but fizzled out before it could propose an alternative. At one point, even Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife railed against the Washington political class, leading ‘Slate’ columnist Dahlia Lithwick to wonder how that term could possibly exclude her husband (“If ever there were nine people who are actually ‘paid’ to think they know better than the rest of us, Supreme Court justices are it”).
Granted, the word ‘elite’ is often used, blurrily, to mean “a group of people whose views I dislike”. But this doesn’t mean that elites don’t exist. On the contrary, the previous debates on the subject were insufficiently subtle, failing to recognise that in the modern world, there are multiple elite groups, each with its own customs and habits, its own moral codes and its own domestic and international connections. And let us be clear: When we are offered the choice between Obama and Romney, we are offered a choice between two sets of them.
You know the stereotypes already. Both Obamas come from what might loosely be called the intellectual/academic meritocracy, the “liberal elite,” the post-WASP Ivy League, easily caricatured as the world of free-trade coffee, organic arugula, smug opinions and Martha’s Vineyard. The Romneys, by contrast, belong to the financial oligarchy, the “global elite,” the post-financial-deregulation world that is just as easily caricatured as one of iced champagne, offshore bank accounts, dressage trainers and private islands.
The two groups have some important overlaps. Although Romney got some attention for holding a fundraiser in the Hamptons last week, Obama has raised more money in the Hamptons overall (the president scored particularly well in Sagaponack, by one account, where the median home price is $4.4 million).
They also have some important differences. The financial oligarchy, as we learned from the Barclays scandal in London last week, is happiest when it operates in deep secrecy, where it can manipulate interest rates, package derivatives, hide its profits and shelter its taxes as it sees fit. The liberal meritocracy prefers to operate in the glare of publicity, where it can deliver lectures, write books, make documentaries and generally promulgate its own views as loudly as possible. Aged 34, Obama wrote his autobiography. Aged 37, Romney founded Bain Capital.
But while you might think one or the other group more preferable or more offensive for reasons of politics, culture or taste, you certainly cannot argue that either of them is in close touch with “average” or “ordinary” or even “middle-class” people, however those terms might be defined. And although they and their supporters may shout about “radical left-wing professors” on the one hand or “Gordon Gekko” on the other, neither Obama nor Romney can plausibly claim to be leading a populist revolution against the “elites” who are allegedly destroying America.
Which is just as well, because the political success of both Obama and Romney proves that radical populism in the US has failed spectacularly. For all of the attention they got, neither Occupy Wall Street nor the tea party has a candidate in this race. Neither found a way to channel inchoate, ill-defined public anger into electoral politics or clear alternatives. Whoever wins in November, the US will get the elite it deserves.
Anne Applebaum is director of political studies at the London-based Legatum Institute.