Over the weekend, the Boston Globe had a piece examining some interesting research showing that the rich really are different from you and me—they're worse:
Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you'd behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you're probably wrong: These aren't just inherited traits, but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.
And it turns out that similar effects happen when people gain power as when they gain money. Of course, these kind of effects aren't going to be visible in every wealthy person—some of them are just as nice as could be. But if these studies are right then these unattractive traits are more visible in those that have more money.
As you may have noticed, candidates for office spend a lot of time trying to convince us that they're reg'lar folks, who never forgot their modest roots (if they have them) or have a great empathy for the great unwashed (if they don't). But these kind of findings actually just reinforce the necessity of looking beyond the regularness candidates claim. After all, anyone can feign a connection to you and me, and it's often difficult to tell those who really feel it from those who are just good actors.
But more importantly, even those who come from humble beginnings have left those beginnings far behind once they get to a position to run for president. Even if they haven't made millions, they've been in a position of power, where all day people cater to their needs and speak to them with deference. Some people are changed more by this than others, and the greater likelihood that a rich, powerful person is a jerk can't tell you whether a particular rich, powerful person is actually a jerk. So the best predictor of what a candidate will do once he or she is elected isn't the judgment you can make of what lies in their heart, or the circumstances of their youth. It's the things they say they're go to do.
Because by and large, politicians, especially presidents, keep their promises. Not every one, of course, and there are some things they'll try to do and fail. But if you want to know whether Mitt Romney cares about ordinary people—particularly in a way that matters for the ordinary should he become president—then look at his proposals. What does he want to do on taxes? On health care? On aid for the unemployed or for the disabled or the poor? On the way people are treated in the workplace? On the environmental regulations that some corporation find inconvenient, but that keep the rest of us from breathing polluted air and drinking polluted water? That's where you'll discover whether a politician cares about you and me, and what he'll do about it.
The truth is that the circumstances of a candidate's youth tell us almost nothing about how he or she will treat ordinary people. Rick Santorum's grandfather was for all intents and purposes a slave laborer for a coal company, but the lesson he takes from that is that big companies should be able to treat people however they damn well please. The hugely rich Ted Kennedy spent a lifetime in office working to improve the lot of the least fortunate. George W. Bush, a child of privilege, ran against two other children of (slightly less but still meaningful) privilege, and managed to convince Americans that he was the one who was more "in touch" with ordinary people, despite the fact that both Al Gore and John Kerry would have pursued policies infinitely more favorable to people of modest means than Bush did.
And frankly, as citizens it shouldn't really matter to us whether a politician supports good policies because he really cares, or because that's what his party expects of him and that's what he had to do to get elected, even though he holds us in barely concealed contempt. But when you can see that contempt peeking through, it's awfully hard to get past it.