Poverty Chic

Column: The latest political fashion

January 10, 2014

"Poverty," the New York Times announced yesterday, "is suddenly the subject of bipartisan embrace."

I have spent a lot of time parsing that sentence. There is, for example, the adverb: "suddenly" does a lot of work; it carries the weight of the entire piece on its eight letters. The condition of the working poor, after all, has been a subject of political dispute since, oh, the Industrial Revolution. The author of the Times article, Jeremy W. Peters, seems to recognize the Groundhog Day aspect of his argument when he writes, in a fine example of mixed metaphor, "To read the flurry of fundraising solicitations that flood email inboxes can, in fact, seem a lot like a rerun of the last presidential election." Jeremy has a short memory.

There is also the matter of subject-verb agreement. Isn’t the subject of an embrace the one doing the embracing? That would make poverty the object, not the subject, of the sentence. Or does "subject" in this case mean a topic of discussion? And wouldn’t a "bipartisan" embrace be between a Republican and a Democrat, leaving poverty in the cold? How does one embrace a concept or state of being? Is poverty really a condition anyone would like to embrace—to welcome, to envelop, to receive cheerfully—in the first place? You don’t "embrace" poverty. You escape it.

The unintelligibility of the Times pronouncement does not diminish its significance, however. Mike Allen of Politico had good reason to call it the "sentence du jour": The eight words capture, however badly, the mood in Washington, the character of recent debate. A less hurried or less pretentious writer might have said, "Poverty has of late become a subject of concern in both political parties." The inequality business is booming. Obscene wealth is unfashionable. Poverty is "in."

Allen’s use of "du jour" to describe the Times sentence was meaningful in another sense. Like tomato soup or clams casino, the issue of income inequality is "of the day," temporary, subject to change at any moment, a matter of extreme interest and importance and emotional import only until it is replaced, without notice, by the next "defining challenge of our time." Circumstances have brought us here—persistent and long-term unemployment, sagging presidential approval ratings, the president’s need to shift public attention away from the problems with his health care law, the extremes of Silicon Valley and Wall Street on the one hand and impoverished urban and suburban neighborhoods on the other, the desire of many Republicans to be creative and relevant—and when those circumstances disappear, the issue of income inequality will disappear too.

Politics, like fashion, is a matter of whims, of fast-changing impulses, of consensus that has all the staying power of New England weather. In fashion as in politics one must know which clothes to wear, which opinions to have in hand. A commonly accepted accessory, like a commonly accepted opinion, is a badge of membership in the tribe. The wrong choice, the sartorial misstep, the injudicious comment mark one as an outlier, out of sync with his environment, disconnected from the currents of opinion that govern the world. There are moments when the union between the political and the fashionable manifests itself physically: think of the sudden collective decision to wear flag pins after 9/11, or the proliferation of Livestrong wristbands a decade ago.

It occurred to me when I read John Koblin’s column "The de Blasios: Dressed for (and by) New York" that this might be one of those moments. The article, which also appeared in Thursday’s Times, says New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s wardrobe proves that his populism is authentic. The evidence? When it was time to pick an outfit for inauguration day, Koblin writes, "Mr. de Blasio had no need to visit Paul Stuart, a one-time favorite of Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, or Martin Greenfield, the East Williamsburg tailor who has made custom suits for Mr. Bloomberg, Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, and Ray Kelly." Bill de Blasio is not one of those Paul Stuart fancy-pants, no sir. He shops at Rothmans, "a Union Square institution for decades, with a long reputation as a men’s discount store." Rothmans, its president says, caters "to regular guys."

Six-foot-five-inches tall, an alum of New York University and Columbia’s School for International Affairs, a fixture of New York politics for three decades, a longtime associate of the Clinton family, Bill de Blasio is not, by any definition, a "regular guy." Yet his political career depends on his ability to convince regular guys that he is exactly like them. He does this through the policies he advocates, through his family story, through his style of life, and, we now learn, through his Corneliani menswear. In this he follows the teaching of Castiglione: "I do not say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen."

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What sort of qualities can be seen in de Blasio’s suits? "He comes to office representing the emerging, the understated, the underclass, the downtrodden," is what author Gay Talese, "a man known for his own stylish attire," tells the Times. "These are his constituents—at least in his own mind—and when he speaks to these people he cannot look too different from them in his attire." If a dark blue Corneliani suit is not "too different" from the attire of the emerging, the understated, the underclass, and the downtrodden, then Bloomberg left New York in pretty good shape.

I do not know what is more remarkable: the human proclivity to endow every personal tic and trait with psychological and political meaning, or the ease with which rich and powerful liberals assume the garments of righteousness, moral superiority, and defense of the poor. His combination of pedigree and populism, the cookie-cutter liberalism that accompanies his "man of the people" wardrobe, makes de Blasio a representative figure of the age. This is a man on the cutting edge of political fashion.

De Blasio possesses the ineffable quality that Castiglione called sprezzatura: the effortlessness with which a liberal demonstrates his concern for income inequality, his fear of global warming, his support for taxpayer-financed contraception and abortion, his commitment to amnesty and open borders. Here is a skill that cannot be bought at Rothmans, a skill that must be acquired over time. It is a sense of the happening issues, of the clichés du jour, of the rhetoric that fits the moment, and the demeanor that inspires sympathy from the people. It is an instinct for the galvanizing political force, for the subject that suddenly makes you the object of bipartisan embrace.

Today that sense has given us a politics of poverty, inequality, and social justice, and has launched political celebrities such as de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama. But fashion is fickle. Trends vanish. And the next fad might not fit the New York Times’ definition of haute politique.