The rise of John Edwards, the multi-millionaire Populist trial lawyer, highlights a phenomenon that is common enough to deserve a name. I propose LIFAE -- a "Leader in the Fight Against the Establishment."
Who can become a LIFAE? Anybody can, even you. The argument works anyone at any point on the social scale. Here's how it goes:
Whenever an American scores any kind of success or moves even a small notch up the social ladder -- buying a new home in the suburbs, for example -- he discovers one great disappointment. Although there are now more people below him on the social ladder, there are also many more people still above.
So what do you do? It's easy. Anybody who is remains above you on the social scale is defined as "the establishment." They've been there too long and don't get what they deserve. Meanwhile, everybody who is still below you is "fighting the establishment." They're trying to displace the people at the top. That puts you in a very pivotal position. You are a "Leader in the Fight Against the Establishment" -- a LIFAE! (I'll settle for the Roman pronunciation, "leef-eye.") You are perfectly positioned to lead the next great social upheaval -- the revolt of all those still below you against all those still above. Together you can topple ancient privilege, banish greed, restore truth and justice, and make the world a better place to live.
Let's see how this works with John Edwards. Quite a bit like Abraham Lincoln, the North Carolina Senator was born in a log cabin (or maybe it was flatboard siding) in a mill town in South Carolina. Smart and personable, he was the first in his family to go to college, made University of North Carolina Law School, and became one of the outstanding personal injury attorneys in the state.
Forty years ago this would have earned Edwards a nice comfortable office, an ad in the yellow pages, and perhaps a position on the steering committee of the local bar association. PI (i.e., "personal injury") attorneys were the bottom rung of the profession -- ambulance chasers living off the suffering of others. But then some liberal academics pulled off a revolution in the tort system and suddenly PI attorneys were winning lottery-sized jackpots. By most estimates, Edwards' personal fortune now stands somewhere between $15 million and $70 million.
So what does he do? Does Edwards celebrate the fluid American society that allows talented people from humble beginnings to rise to the top? No, he's more concerned with those still above him. Just estimating, I'd say Edwards is in the 98th percentile of personal wealth right now. But it's that 2 percent that are still above him who are having all the fun. They are "The Establishment." And Edwards, of course, is a LIFAE - a Leader in the Fight Against the Establishment.
FOR HIS CAMPAIGN THEME Edwards has adopted "The Two Americas." Some people would say there is only one America, others would say there are a hundred. But two is a nice number because it allows people to be divided into "us" and "them."
"When the president says, 'The state of our union is strong,' you need to ask 'which union Mr. President?'" proclaimed Edwards in response to last month's State of the Union Address. "Because the state of George Bush's union -- the America of the Washington lobbyists, special interests and his CEO friends -- is doing just fine. They get what they want, whenever they want. But in our America, the union of working Americans, life is a struggle every single day."
Seriously now, do you think there's anybody in America, no matter how rich, who "gets whatever they want whenever they want"? Do Donald Trump or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates make the stock market rise and fall with a wave of the hand? Most of the time they are complaining about business conditions and what the competition is doing to them.
Unfortunately, Edwards hasn't quite mastered all the moves himself. In Four Trials, his campaign autobiography, he enthusiastically recounts his trip up Mt. Kilimanjaro with his son. Apparently it hasn't occurred to him yet that scaling African peaks isn't on the vacation itinerary of most Americans. With more experience, he'll learn to bracket these jaunts between serious discussions with Middle East leaders and an AIDS conference in Rwanda.
Where Edwards is really going to be in trouble, however, is if he has to run with John Kerry -- who is also starting to lash out at the "economy of privilege." The Massachusetts Senator has the standard patrician heritage -- St. Paul's and Yale -- although he did enlist for the Vietnam War, which is what makes him a presidential candidate. Still, Kerry didn't really solidify his background until he married Teresa Heinz, widow of the late Pennsylvania Republican Senator John Heinz, who was heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune. (His most famous quote: "It's the ketchup people leave on their plates that make me rich.") The Kerry-Heinzes have an estimated net worth of around $500 million. Now that's what I call The Establishment!
AMERICA IS NOT A NATION divided by rich and poor. The real malaise in this country is middle-class anxiety. I was talking with a Brazilian woman the other day and she told me how much easier it is to live with a professional income in that still-developing country. "You can hire servants, you don't have other people crowding in on you, you can have just about anything you want." That's the problem.
Alexis de Tocqueville predicted all this long ago but it's worth trotting out those old quotes: "When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, a man's own energies may place him at the top of any one of them…. [Yet] however democratic the social state and political constitution may be, it is certain that every member of the community will always find out several points about him which overlook his own position and we may foresee that his looks will be doggedly fixed in that direction…. To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance."
To see the fallacy of Edwards' populism, just imagine him making the same address to the rest of the world. Who is it that is "doing just fine" and "gets whatever they want whenever they want." It is America, of course, where the number-one health problem among poor people is obesity. Would redistributing America's wealth to the rest of the world make everyone rich and happy? Of course not. Wealth depends on what you can do, not what you have in the bank.
As Tocqueville would say to John Edwards, "Welcome to the club of vaguely dissatisfied rich men."