Choir robes, $25,000 shrimp and grits, and the modern Presidency

I am a fallen believer in the power and will of a modern President. I should admit that from the start. I have no enemy in the office, and I have no friend.

There is a natural, human desire to be a part of something. There is peace in being part of the team. As you might now, I believed–right or wrong–that I was part of something in 2008. The man who would be President made me believe that he was looking out for the values and ideals I held pure and true. To date, he has largely not done that. I should not have been so surprised.

I don’t judge, no matter what you may think. If you truly believe in your candidate, I applaud your will to take part in the process. It’s not your opinion that bothers me. I’d kill to hear your opinion. Yours, that is.

I bring it up to say this: because you support a man and that man supports an idea should not mean you by default support that idea. That’s not fair to you. You are allowed to support a candidate without implicitly supporting every one of his ideas.

If support of a candidate automatically implies support of every one of his ideas, then we all become, by default, their pawns. You probably don’t do this, but that’s because you’re smart. I’d venture to say that a majority of Americans aren’t lucky enough to be as smart as you. That’s the problem.

Both sides of the aisle know it is to their benefit to make us part of the team, hand out the talking points, and make sure they’re repeated. They do this because it works so incredibly well. When the choir all sings in the same voice, it’s beautiful and people listen. Just make sure to hold the “o” on “Ditto” as long as you can. It sounds better that way.

I don’t bring it up because I care terribly how the November election plays out. You might be surprised to learn that I honestly don’t care that much. To those with whom I share values, I know that isn’t easy to read, but my belief in substantive positive change for the average American has withered.

The average American? Who is that? Nearly every person I know and love. Unless you were at Soby’s today paying the equivalent of a decent car for a plate of food and a stump speech (or at a fundraiser like it in the near future), the average American is you.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Your seat at the table comes with a price tag you can’t afford.

Soby’s, you say? Well, that’s where this started for me this morning.

***

2010 per capita income in Greenville County, SC: $25,931.

Price of lunch with Mitt Romney in Greenville today at Soby’s: $25,000

That was my cry this morning on various social media sites as the Republican nominee for President visited this city for a million-dollar fundraiser at one of our downtown restaurants. I further noted that my last meal at Soby’s cost $150, a sum at which I would’ve blanched ten years ago, but today is an amount I can spend for the occasional decent meal. I’m fortunate.

But $25,000 for a lunch with a Presidential candidate? What does that buy? Well, one would hope it’s more than shrimp and grits (which, by the way, are pretty damned good at Soby’s). One would hope, indeed.

That was my point. Extrapolated with some degree of level-headedness and appreciation for the fact that I actually think about what I say, my intended point was that American politics has reached a point that requires this kind of fundraising, and that there are people—people with whom I can in no way relate (and neither can you, I’d assume)—who will spend that kind of money for an hour in front of a man who might—might—be President one day.

It’s accepted as de rigueur. As a people we acquiesce to the old trope: “It’s what’s required to get elected.” In short, we don’t question it. We let the figure fly by us on the news stations and barely blink. We people who might be able to afford the odd $150 meal don’t take heed of the fact that it takes the per capita income of the city to get a semi-private meeting with a man who might be President in six months, or could just as likely be on the lecture circuit (where you won’t be able to get a ticket, either).

It’s not the presumptuousness of people asking for that kind of donation. It’s not that people will actually give that sort of donation. It’s what we people without the means should infer from it. There are dozens of people in each of our cities who have the financial means to get a special meeting with a man who could eventually be the leader of the free world, and those are the people who pay for the campaign signs.

More importantly: we aren’t them.

Here’s your “Like, duh, obviously” statement of the day: these people are given that access because of their money. We average Americans for the most part cannot get that access because we don’t have the means to part with $25,000 for lunch. Hence, in the run-up to the election, our only value to the candidates is our willingness to sing with the choir. And the only way they can get us to sing is to pay the choir directors a lot of money. Follow the circle around, and you’ll end up looking in a restaurant window at a plate of shrimp and grits you don’t get to eat.

So, that was my point: not whether money is the driving force behind politics (of course it is), but to take notice of the fact that it would take the per capita income of Greenville, SC to get an hour at Soby’s with a Presidential candidate. In our moments of “like, duh, obviously,” we lose complete sight at just how much money that is and what could be otherwise done with the cash.

That was my point.

***

But because it was Mitt Romney and most people know I tend to align better philosophically with the current President, my point—as happens frequently in political discourse—didn’t hit its target.

Said one friend and coworker, “The per capita income in Greenville County would be higher today if it wasn’t for Obama.”

Commented another, “In MN Obama lunch twice as much.”

In a matter of seconds, because the player in the story was Mitt Romney, my disgust at a $25,000 fundraiser became an excuse to fight over which man should be President, a subject about which I think I’ve made myself very clear. I’ll admit, I quoted Romney’s 13% tax statement in the same thread (I thought it spoke to the point of the $25,000 fundraiser), but that was after the conversation already took a sour turn. And even if it wasn’t, that doesn’t change the point.

I ask this question with all sincerity: is it possible to have a discussion about this election and criticize the process–or even a candidate–without the conversation devolving to how the other guy will destroy America? Is that possible? Has it reached the point that if I want to make a point about anything that I automatically have to disavow the other side, too? I suppose I could preface everything with, “President Obama is just as bad,” but it really slows the punch. And I like the punches to be quick, because I’m not aiming at the man. I’m aiming at what he—no matter who he is—represents: a process that, no matter how much we want to believe, truly doesn’t serve us.

So, I’m doing my best to look at this year’s election cycle without doing the “your candidate versus my candidate” thing. It’s easy for me, because neither man represents me. And while it’s pretty presumptuous of me, I’d venture to say neither man truly represents you either. No matter whether it was $25,000 in Greenville or $50,000 in Minneapolis, I know very few people who have that kind of money to drop on a meet and greet with a potential or actual President, and those I do know with that kind of scratch certainly aren’t reading this.

So, to you, my fellow average American, I pose the following:

I wonder if it would be better if we as an electorate worked under a different system of discourse, one in which criticism of a candidate or an idea doesn’t automatically imply a defense or endorsement of another candidate. Perhaps we could move ahead with more efficiency if our first response to criticism of our man or his ideas isn’t “well, the other guy is just as bad or worse.” Because, under those systems, we limit ourselves. We become de facto, unpaid proxies for people we don’t know, who don’t know us, and—if we’re all being honest—probably don’t have us in mind on a regular basis.

If it matters to you, Mitt Romney doesn’t share my values. Barack Obama claims to share many of my values but won’t stand for them. Neither man is my candidate, and it’s unlikely either man will get my vote this year. With all of that said, I think it’s to our benefit to discuss how little we actually mean to both candidates, and to have that discussion, we have to rise above our choir chairs and realize that no matter how much both Presidential candidates may want us to believe it, the battle for change is not between Republicans and Democrats. We are all on one team. I’ll let you figure out who sits under the other flag.

In the end, what I find sort of amusing is that those people who forked over $25,000 apiece on their lunch hour (raising a reported $1.5 million) probably won’t have the kind of access they think $25,000 (or $50,000 in the case of the Obama event) buys. No, once November comes, and the newly-elected President sits down in the Oval Office, the shrimp-and-grits guy from Greenville probably won’t get a meeting.

Twenty-five grand just doesn’t buy what it used to.