“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “They are different from you and me.”

You bet your ass they are. And they like it that way.

They build prep schools, country clubs, and gated communities to keep the right attitudes in and the wrong people out. But most importantly, I think, they create these institutions and edifices to protect themselves from the consequences of their behavior.

If they do not see poverty, hunger, ignorance, and squalor, they can pretend these conditions are unconnected to them. They can dwell in their Reaganesque utopia of “invisible hands” and tides lifting boats. They can tell themselves that anybody with a little pluck and luck can make it to the top. They can point to themselves as proof of this timeless truth.

What these plutocrats refuse to understand is that some people are simply born with more opportunities than others, with more doors to choose from, more presents to unwrap. And when their wits fail them or the economy falters, they will not land on the street. They will not sleep in a homeless shelter or stand in a morning labor pool, waiting for their names to be called. They will always have safety nets and cushions.

The United States in the 21st century is the most rigid class society among Western industrialized democracies. If you are born poor in America, you will almost certainly die poor. And if you are born rich, it is almost impossible to become poor. In fact, it is possible to fail so frequently and so spectacularly that you eventually rise to the presidency of the United States.

As proof, I give you George W. Bush, a creature of privilege and presumption, arrogance and ignorance, a man who could have been produced only by an insular and degenerate plutocracy.

In South Carolina we have a man who aspires to be our next George W. Bush — Mark Sanford.

Gov. Sanford comes from a similar background of privilege and presumption, and that worldview has produced a similar effect on his philosophy and politics.

Sanford is a multi-multi-millionaire, independently wealthy before he married Jenny Sullivan, a wealthy industrial heiress and Wall Street executive. The Sanfords made their home on Sullivan’s Island, with a 98.74 percent white population and a median family income of $98,455, according to the 2000 census. Two years ago, Forbes magazine ranked the tony barrier island the 70th priciest zip code in the nation, based on real estate values. The Sanfords’ house recently went on the market for $3.5 million. Since he was elected governor, Sanford’s four sons have been enrolled at the exclusive Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, where tuitions for K-12 range from $12,140 to $14,400 a year.

In this strange little parallel universe of violence, paranoia, and surrealism called South Carolina, anything can happen. In recent months the world has been amused at the sight of our governor trying to turn down federal stimulus money from Washington. Last fall he dithered and pontificated over accepting money to pay for food stamps and unemployment compensation. In the state with the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, Sanford preached his tired old libertarian, free-market ideology while 77,000 unemployed South Carolinians waited in despair.

Sanford eventually gave in on the unemployment compensation funds, but now he is turning his back on $700 million in stimulus money targeted for education and law enforcement. Without the federal money, up to 2,600 public school employees, including 1,500 teachers, will lose their jobs, along with SLED agents and prison guards. Hundreds of convicts may have to be released early.

Sanford has won rebuke far and wide for his latest posturing, including in the pages of The New York Times and The Post and Courier. But there are two things you need to understand: First, Sanford’s decisions won’t affect him or his family. His children go to private school. He lives in the Governor’s Mansion and works in the Statehouse, two of the most tightly guarded venues in the state. He has nothing to fear from muggers or burglars. He is rich, and he is safe from the consequences of his behavior. And second, he is playing to a wider audience. Mark Sanford has not ruled out running for president in 2012, and he is building his reputation among some conservatives as a libertarian true believer. And it seems to be working. He is getting good reviews in some quarters of the Republican Party.

Frankly, I would like to see Sanford win the Republican nomination in 2012. Then he could do to the Republican Party what the Republicans did to the American economy.

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