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Money and Elitism: Romney v. Gingrich

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  January 24, 2012 11:44 AM

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One of the most fascinating questions to come out of yesterday's debate - and today's Romney tax returns - is a simple one: who exactly is elite?

On NBC last night, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich spent several minutes arguing about who truly pulled themselves up by their bootstraps - and who operated as an insider.

Gingrich, Romney alleged, not only roamed the halls of power but, after leaving the Speakership, began "working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac. Freddie Mac was paying Speaker Gingrich one million, six hundred thousand dollars."

In the past, of course, Newt has attacked "elites" and "the elite media," presumably excluding himself from either group. And he has insisted that he is the best representative of average, salt-of-the-earth conservatives.

Romney too has tried to distance himself from elites, noting that he "didn't inherit money" from his parents and, instead, made it on his own.

Both Gingrich and Romney are doing their best to sidle away from the "elite" moniker. But it hardly matters. Both are, by any measure, elites.

(If you want to take it to the dictionary here, my old-school, Webster's New World Dictionary defines "elite" as "1. the group or part of a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc.")

Gingrich has a Ph.D., served as a college professor, rose to become Speaker of the House (second in line to the presidency), and, according to his tax returns, earned north of $3.1 million last year.

As The Washington Post's Ezra Klein has written, Gingrich has also "co-authored New York Times op-eds with Sen. John Kerry. He served on the bipartisan U.S. Commission on National Security and as co-chair of a task force on UN reform... If Newt Gingrich is not a Washington elite, no one is."

Romney, to his credit, has essentially acknowledged that he is among the financially elite - and today's tax returns, showing he made more than $20 million in both 2010 and 2011 testify to that. But his repeated claim that he made it on his own is questionable.

First, he is the son of a former governor of Michigan who ran for president and headed up a major American car company. The notion, therefore, that he "lived in the real streets of America" seems credible only in the most literal sense. I'm sure he has, in fact, always lived on a real street in America (except when he lived overseas).

Second, PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning arm of the Tampa Bay Times, noted that even while Mitt was still in school, having recently married Ann, they seemed to be benefitting from outside financial help.

"It's not clear who paid for his education, but Romney wasn't exactly a struggling student: enough cash for plane tickets, a car as a wedding gift, stock that kept him from having to work, help buying a home."

Which leads to an interesting question: what exactly is elite? And who is part of it? Is elitism defined by education? By income? (And how much is enough?) By the ability to wield power or influence?

Perhaps, but not if Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich have anything to say about it.

What do you think the definition of elitism is?

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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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