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Raasch: In aspirational America, politicians are sometimes the ones who least understand

Raasch: In aspirational America, politicians are sometimes the ones who least understand

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

If some politicians understood this nation’s history a little better, they’d not walk into that same America the Great trap over and over and over again.

But they don’t understand, and then they fall, and they get called on it.

And that helps make America great.

If some politicians didn’t mistake “knowing what the average person goes through” with “I’m one of you,” they wouldn’t fall into the perpetual trap of who’s the least elitist.

But that happens, election after election, and they get called on it.

And that, too, helps make America great.

This conversation comes to you in the smoldering aftermath of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s riff on President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“It was never that great,” said Cuomo, a Democrat, speaking to a re-election campaign audience in Manhattan. “We have not reached greatness. We will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged.”

The remark set off the predictable social media firestorm and pious pronouncements on cable TV. It’s likely to be a line uttered in infamy in perpetuity against the New York politician for every right-wing commentator’s mantra that liberals hate America as much as conservatives love it.

Cuomo clearly was not hearing the voice of his late father, Mario, whose speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco is still held up as one of the shining rhetorical tributes to the aspirations — and the freedom to work toward them — that ultimately make this country great.

In that speech, the elder Cuomo spoke of his father, an Italian immigrant, a “small man with thick calluses” who came to this country “alone, unable to speak the language,” a man who worked his way toward the American Dream and begat not one, but now two, New York governors.

“That they were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other side of the tracks where he was born, to occupy the highest seat, in the greatest state, in the greatest nation, in the only world we would know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process,” Mario Cuomo said.

The fact that Andrew Cuomo, even in an instant, could not summon that greatness in his speech this week is testament not to the failure of aspirations, but to the politicians who are helping poison the political atmosphere with divisiveness and rank partisanship and blatant disregard for their nation’s history.

The truth is, there was greatness embedded in Washington’s ragtag soldiers who survived Valley Forge, and in the people who more than a century later marched for women’s suffrage. There was greatness in millions of young Americans who answered the call after their politicians decided to go all in on the Great War — World War I — to save Europe from itself.

There was greatness in the Greatest Generation’s young men who stormed the beaches of fascist Europe and ended Japanese imperialism in Asia. There was greatness in Martin Luther King Jr. writing from the Birmingham Jail, and for the civil rights marchers of the stormy years that followed.

Flawed actors all, in a nation that will never perfect perfection. But still holding to aspirations.

Last week, the two prime Senate candidates in Missouri engaged in a tweet skirmish on the following question: Which is the least elitist?

Democrat Claire McCaskill mocked Republican Josh Hawley for not knowing the difference between a truck and trailer, then stuck in a dig at his Ivy League education. Hawley responded with barbs aimed at McCaskll’s family airplane, and the “she’s too rich for us” baggage packed in it.

It’s a fig-leaf argument. Since when is it anti-American to strive for betterment, in education or wealth?

Truth is, as opposed to the citizen legislators of the early republic, we have built up automatic barriers between the governed and those who serve in office.

They have huge taxpayer-paid staffs and (relatively) large salaries. Their constant need to raise money for their campaigns thrusts them constantly into the orbits of the rich and famous. Some politicians get rich by trading in their expertise gained on the taxpayer dime for post-political careers providing seven-figure advice for the best way to gain access to the federal treasury.

Most Missourians shrug off this elitist argument in the first place, says Jeremy Walling, a political scientist at Southeast Missouri State University.

“We accept that most politicians come from elite backgrounds and live elite lifestyles,” Walling said, further describing it as “the cost of doing business” for politicians.

“Hawley went to the best schools he could and has an education that makes him an elite,” Walling said. “McCaskill’s wealth makes her a financial elite. They’re both elites that make them out of step with the median Missourian. I just think most people don’t care.”

That’s one more freedom — the freedom to ignore the unimportant.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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