I already made this point in comments to a previous last post, but I wanted to expand on it. This may strike you as pompous, but hey, I’m king of this blog, and it’s good to be the king!
One aspect of American culture that many foreign observers rarely understand is the appeal of "regular guy" candidates for high political office. They listen to commentators praise a U.S. political candidate for being the "kind of guy you could drink a beer with" and scratch their heads. Europeans tend to concentrate more on the candidate’s qualifications, and will give credit to a candidate who has achieved various status distinctions in their societies. Job titles, educational titles, honorary degrees, and official prizes are important in Europe. Europeans who have them make no secret of them, and expect them to be recognized and respected by people who have lower status. This explains why, for instance, why a doctoral title in Germany becomes part of your official name, and why you can be sued for not using the proper form of respectful address towards others.
Lower-status people, in turn, are usually willing to convey this respect and recognition for higher status. To Americans, this respect for external accoutrements of status often seems exaggerated. They will mock it as "groveling" or "bowing and scraping." (One of the things that irritated English visitors to the U.S. in the 19th century was the New Worlders’ tendency to mock the English for their "slavish" devotion to their monarch). To most Europeans, respecting titles is just a natural part of how their societies work. Europeans tend to perceive Americans as lacking in a "proper" sense of respect and deference, and having an underdeveloped sense of personal dignity. Plus, they will argue, for all the superficial equality in day-to-day social interaction, America is quite stratified, albeit along slightly different lines (think gated communities and income inequality).
This is why lots of intelligence (Willy Brandt), charm (Jacques Chirac), noble lineage (Prince Karel Schwarzenberg) — or being a novelist (Disraeli), poet (Dominique de Villepin) or intellectual (Michael Ignatieff) — aren’t necessarily advantages for American politicians. These qualities make many American voters insecure and envious. What makes a candidate Lee Marvinesque is displaying characteristics that ordinary people — even deeply imperfect ones — can imagine themselves possessing. Not everyone can be intelligent or charming or can write books. But any man can look destiny in the eye without flinching, shrug off agonizing pain, prove he won’t take shit from anyone, and bluntly speak his mind without worrying who he pisses off. Or at least, any man can fantasize that he possesses these qualities, even if he works for a box company in Tustin, California. And any woman, for that matter, may not have exquisite taste in clothes, a perfect figure, or a degree from an respected university. But any woman can be a good mother, can be a devout and reliable member of a respected church, and can volunteer for worthy charities. For that matter, any woman can also display some of the admirable male "everyday guy" characteristics, and vice-versa.
But wait, isn’t America ruled by millionaires? Sure, but the standard model of the American dream holds that anyone can become rich, as long as she has enough grit, gumption, and determination. The important thing for purposes of retail, day-to-day politics is not how much money you have, but whether you’re able to project a "regular-guy" persona, and whether you display "regular guy" virtues. Lee Marvinesque virtues. That’s what John McCain does with fearful effectiveness.