Thursday, July 23, 2009

Revolting Elites

The late Christopher Lasch had his unfinished final work edited by his daughter and published posthumously. Entitled Revolt of the Elites, it chronicled (as best it could under the circumstances) the ways in which our political, educational, corporate, and media elites began to view the American people as ignorant boobs, in need of bread and circuses rather than politics; entertainment rather than news; and trivia rather than serious reflection on our current national condition. It was an intriguing thesis, and I have pondered it often over the years since I first read it. By removing the question of ideology from the mix, and focusing on certain social and cultural realities that are easier to trace (such as, for example, the Ivy League inbreeding of so many of our elites), the dynamics of much of our social and political life come in to a different, but no less clear, focus.

This is not to dismiss ideology from the mix of our public life. Rather, by taking its cue from certain facts and trends, including ideological and political trends, it puts ideology in the larger context of our social life, social structure, and cultural traditions, and we end up with a far more nuanced, far more interesting snapshot, among other things, of our public discourse and its discontents (and occasional malcontents). As I noted earlier, the day is chock-a-block with really fun stuff. It seems most of our political establishment has lost its collective mind. One could take the easy road and say, "Well, they're all just a bunch of pig-ignorant wing-nuts. Screw 'em!" While it is certainly more than true there are plenty of low-info folks out there offering their opinions on matters they really don't understand, it should be pointed out that, very often, the people who complain the loudest when things don't go their way are usually children, whether in terms of age or temperament.

It is as much intellectual laziness as it is keen observation to say, in effect, "They're all stupid, so why be surprised when they say something stupid!" Some of our elites, despite receiving education at excellent institutions of higher learning, are indeed as dumb as a creel of dead fish (see Bush, George W., Presidential Administration of for details), there are larger dynamic at work here than simple stupidity.

My own impression is the idea that the vast bulk of the American people aren't very bright really began in the mid- to late-1960's, as George Wallace surprised a whole lot of folks in the 1968 Presidential race. While his appeal was certainly strong across the south for racial reasons, he also appealed to many working class whites in the northeast and upper midwest. Observers at the time believed this to be a case of status anxiety. Others saw it as a populist revolt against the elitism of the youth anti-war and counter-cultural movements. Andrew Greeley, then a practicing sociologist at the University of Chicago, put it down to both causes. Whatever the reasons (and my guess is racism in the big cities had much to do with it, as well), the end result was the infamous "Southern Strategy" Richard Nixon employed so successfully in 1968, a playbook Republicans have returned to time and again. With the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, religious conservatives re-entered public life in a big way, as the anti-abortion (really anti-sex) movement exploding on the scene. Social and cultural conservatism had come in to its own, and the Republican Party was reaping the rewards.

Yet, as I noted on Sunday, the Republican Party has failed to deliver, for the most part, on any of its social agenda, for what is most likely the simplest reason - they don't really believe in it. While it may be true there are liberals out there who express a certain hauteur when dealing with conservatives, this is no less so for elites of any persuasion. One of the worst examples of the former phenomenon happened during the Clinton years. During a discussion of the charges made against Clinton by Paula Jones, one of the President's defenders said, "Well, you never know what you're going get when you drag a $20 bill through a trailer park." While Jones' charges were deemed without legal merit, to dismiss them entirely as confabulation in this way gave Clinton's opponents all the ammunition they needed to screech about Democratic and liberal elitism.

Yet, the same phenomenon occurs on the other side, yet is far more subtle. Bill Kristol's ongoing support of soon-to-be former-Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska is a case in point. For all his faults, Kristol isn't a dumb guy. Yet, his insistence that, despite evidence that it was Sarah Palin's presence on the Republican ticket that torpedoed McCain's chance at victory last fall, I believe that Kristol is supporting her for the same reason that so many liberals make fun of her - she is attractive to the far-right base of the Republican Party. I believe, Kristol is trying to be her political groomer because it is politically expedient to do so. She is, to be sure, popular with the base. The rest of America, however, is quite done with her, and made their feelings known in no uncertain terms last year during that whole election thing.

Fast forward to Pres. Obama's press conference last night, and we have another instance of this same phenomenon. The press conference was supposed to deal with the on-going fight on health care reform. It ended up being, in the minds of far too many, about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It is certainly easy (same link to Sadly,No! as above in the first instance) to dismiss this as press corps stupidity. My guess, however, is the question was rooted in the assumption on the part of the reporter who asked the question that there is a segment of the American public truly interested in the opinions of our first African-American President on the arrest of a prominent African-American intellectual on seriously bogus charges. That it has become a bit of a distraction for the President is due in no small part not to press corps apathy toward the health care debate so much as it is their belief that the American people don't care all that much about the health care reform debate.

None of this is to say that there aren't truly dumb people in the press corps and punditry. There are, and some of these truly dumb people hold prominent positions (just think of David Broder getting glassy-eyed as Al Gore talked serious policy during a 2000 debate with then-Gov. George W. Bush, or Lou Dobbs ongoing obsession with the birther nonsense on CNN). Yet, I think these kinds of things become part of the general milieu of received, conventional wisdom not only because there are reporters who aren't that bright, but because many of their cohort hold the American people in contempt, intellectually.

When I started this particular web log, the weekend before the 2006 mid-term elections, I had to deal with a liberal blogger (he doesn't blog anymore, too bad) who insisted that the Republican Party would win the elections, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, and when they did so, the "sheeple" (as he called them), would blithely and silently go along with such obvious election fraud. I insisted that (a) the polls certainly suggested a Democratic victory was at hand; (b) Rove's now-infamous "the math" comment was a gambler's bluff more than anything else; (c) I trusted the American people to do what was in their interest in light of a whole series of events, and toss the right out of power. That I was vindicated in all three positions doesn't matter as much as the fact that it was the last one - my innate trust of the American people to vote in their interests when things are really down - that was the root cause of my lack of concern over that election, or the 2008 Presidential election. Unlike so-called right-wing populists, I believe I am far more a populist because I trust the American people to do what is right for the times.

Right now, the in-fighting in Washington is not based on ideological differences, or corporate corruption of the process, or the intellectual vacuity of our civic institutions including the national press corps. Rather, the in-fighting in Washington is rooted in the stake-holders of the status quo who are fundamentally undemocratic, do not trust the American people, and wish to keep the entire process in the hands of those who have held power for 40 years to our near-national demise; and those, including I would argue the President who trust the wisdom and intelligence of the American people, treat us like grown-ups, and refuse to allow themselves to be dragged down to the level of intellectually interrupted individuals simply because there is a general belief that America is too stupid to do policy.

My guess is, in the long run, the President is going to win this fight, too.

Virtual Tin Cup

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