President George Bush, son of former President George Bush; Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, son of former Teamster’s leader Jimmy Hoffa; Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Martin Luther King III, son of former SCLC leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Former Tennessee senator Al Gore, son of former Tennessee senator Al Gore. Alaska Senator, Lisa Murkowski, daughter of former Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski. From Jesse Jackson Jr to former FCC chairman Michael Powell the list goes on.
America’s political class looks more like royalty by another means than the product of a dynamic democratic system. From the Republican party to the civil rights movement all too often leadership appears to be a determined by genetics. If Hillary Clinton gets the nomination then we add marriage to the list too. But if the most crucial issue here is not nepotism (although that too is a problem) but class — the elephant in the room of American political discourse. For if classlessness is central to America’s self-image of meritocracy and personal reinvention, class is increasingly central to American reality.
New studies reveal that parental income is a better predictor of whether you will be rich or poor in the US than it is in Canada or much of Europe. Meanwhile this week’s Economist shows that only 3% of students at top colleges come from the poorest quarter of the population. Such class entrenchment was washed up for all to see following hurricane Katrina last year.
And yet the level of denial at all levels of American society to the existence of class is breathtaking. For all the various regional, racial and ethnic identities to which Americans sign up to the economic identity of class is rarely one of them. The overwhelming majority define themselves as middle class — expressing the admirable aspiration that they are en route to better things. But it begs the question, middle between what and what? Clearly, just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.