How rich do you have to be?

A story about Virginia politics has me thinking about politics in Texas and everywhere else.

National Journal’s Matt Berman put together a thoughtful article (“What the Bob McDonnell Indictment Reveals About Wealth in American Politics“) about the predicament that Governor McDonnell and his wife found themselves in. There are, as Berman points out, a set of expectations that come with living in the public eye.

It’s not surprising to see U.S. politicians place so much value on appearance, even well above their own means. To be shocked is to ignore the often outrageous pressure society puts on its (especially female) political figures to look the part. Not even Janet Yellen can wear a dress twice. And remember, as big as the bill is for Maureen McDonnell’s shopping spree, it doesn’t even touch the $150,000 the Republican National Committee spent on a makeover for Sarah Palin in 2008.

Governor McDonnell at his inaugural

Society expects it elected officials (and their families) to be impeccably dressed. In other words, we expect that the people who will represent us will look and dress nothing like us. As Lucia Grave points out in her analysis have some kind of serious problem when “serious” news outlets like Roll Call  judge people like Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen based on their wardrobe. Ironically, even those defending Yellen’s attire displayed some of the warning signs of extreme shallowness. In his mea culpa for writing about Yellen’s attire, Warren Rojas recounts some of the criticisms he faced: “Where is the blistering assault on President Barack Obama’s strict rotation of blue or gray suits, some wondered. Why no exposés about current Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s penchant for Jos. A. Bank wear, prodded others.?” This left me wondering, who was tracking Obama’s suit rotation or researching the origins of Bernanke’s suits? Why is anyone trying to judge any important person by their clothes?

None of this excuses what Governor McDonnell and his wife may have done. However, it is worrisome to think about the impact of this discussion on the thousands of lower or middle-class men and women thinking about entering public life and wondering if they can afford the trappings of power. How many people look at what their elected officials wear and implicitly understand that those people live in a different world? How many average Americans will never try to enter halls of power of power because they don’t feel they can meet this implied dress code?

Many of our elected officials have advocated school uniforms (in part) to address the kind of petty materialism behind this problem. Uniforms also contribute to a sense of teamwork, emphasize learning, and discouraging the formation of gangs. This seems as needed in Austin and Washington as our schools.

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