Ballot Box

It’s the Empty Materialism, Stupid

In bad times, “outsider” candidates run against the economic status quo. In good times, it seems they strain to do exactly the same thing. Probably the most distinct theme to emerge thus far among the leading challengers to quasi-incumbent Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race is that the material wealth of America in the 1990s has brought with it a sense of spiritual discontent.

The official slogan of the George W. Bush campaign is “Prosperity With a Purpose,” which W. explains by pointing out that “prosperity alone is simple materialism.” In his “armies of compassion” address in Indianapolis, he elaborated a bit more. “The invisible hand works many miracles,” Bush said. “But it cannot touch the human heart.”

Bill Bradley has been saying essentially the same thing. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Tim Russert asked Bradley to identify the biggest problem confronting American society in the next century. Bradley cited two issues: race and the lack of meaning. “There is something that’s going on in the country that is widely felt, and that is people searching for some meaning in their life that is deeper than the material,” he said. “I think that that is a profound reaction to the materialism of our time and to the hollowness of life if you’re only interested in material things.”

It’s hard to disagree with such sentiments, but it’s even harder to understand why Bush and Bradley are turning them into focuses of their campaigns. Don’t they remember Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech? Don’t they remember Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning” fiasco? Americans tend to be allergic to politicians’ dabbling in vague spiritual criticism, and for good reason. We’re electing someone to run the government, not minister to the condition of our souls.

You also have to wonder just whose feelings these guys are trying to voice. Even in flush times like these, it’s hard to imagine that a large segment of the electorate feels burdened by the spiritual side effects of excessive wealth. While presidential candidates spend a good deal of time among people with too much money on their hands (they’re called thousand dollar contributors), this is surely not a significant voting block.

But perhaps such comments are intended less for those who feel afflicted by this particular form of ennui than for the larger group capable of resenting the rich. On this reading, denouncing the spiritual fallout of excess wealth is a sophisticated variety of economic populism tailored to an audience of people who fully hope to get rich themselves. Like greed, materialism is a vice that tends to afflict those with more money than oneself. The problem isn’t money. It’s the values of people who have money. Here the multimillionaires Bradley and Bush may have stumbled upon something rather clever: a kind of rich candidate’s class warfare. Shunning shallow materialism is a way to express contempt for the upper class while being a member of the upper class.

Still, the candidates are going to have trouble pulling this off. The last rich president to benefit from class warfare was Franklin Roosevelt. FDR could do this not just because of his sense of noblesse oblige but because he had policies to propose that would rein in the rich. Bush and Bradley don’t have any practical suggestions. Instead of taxing and regulating the “malefactors of great wealth” into submission, they merely suggest we feel sorry for them.

Al Gore hasn’t said anything about empty materialism yet, so he still may have a chance to differentiate himself. If I were he, I think I’d respond by saying that excessive prosperity is now a problem for just a few–and that the next president should see to it that it afflicts as many of us as possible.