Copyright The Wall Street Journal
April 21, 2008
Allow me to introduce myself. According to the general clucking of the national punditry, my 2004 book â€šÃ„Ã¬ “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” â€šÃ„Ã¬ is supposed to have persuaded Barack Obama to describe the yeomanry of Pennsylvania as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or . . . anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Mr. Obama’s offense is so grave that the custodians of our national consensus have elevated it to gatehood: “Bittergate.”
In truth, I have no way of knowing whether some passage of mine inspired Mr. Obama’s tactless assertion that the hard-done-by clutch guns and irrationally oppose free-trade deals. In point of fact, I oppose many of those trade deals myself.
But I know one thing with absolute certainty. The media flurry kicked up by Mr. Obama’s gaffe powerfully confirms an argument I actually did make: That as they return again to the culture war, what the soldiers on all sides are doing is talking about class without actually addressing the economic basis of the subject.
Consider, for example, the one fateful charge that the punditry and the other candidates have fastened upon Mr. Obama â€šÃ„Ã¬ “elitism.” No one means by this term that Mr. Obama is a wealthy person (he wasn’t until last year), or even that he is an ally of the wealthy (although he might be that). What they mean is that he has committed a crime of attitude, and revealed his disdain for the common folk.
It is a stereotype you have heard many times before: Besotted with latte-fueled arrogance, the liberal looks down on average people, confident that he is a superior being. He scoffs at religion because he finds it to be a form of false consciousness. He believes in regulation because he thinks he knows better than the market.
“Elitism” is thus a crime not of society’s actual elite, but of its intellectuals. Mr. Obama has “a dash of Harvard disease,” proclaims the Weekly Standard. Mr. Obama reminds columnist George Will of Adlai Stevenson, rolled together with the sinister historian Richard Hofstadter and the diabolical economist J.K. Galbraith, contemptuous eggheads all. Mr. Obama strikes Bill Kristol as some kind of “supercilious” Marxist. Mr. Obama reminds Maureen Dowd of an . . . anthropologist.
Ah, but Hillary Clinton: Here’s a woman who drinks shots of Crown Royal, a luxury brand that at least one confused pundit believes to be another name for Old Prole Rotgut Rye. And when the former first lady talks about her marksmanship as a youth, who cares about the cool hundred million she and her husband have mysteriously piled up since he left office? Or her years of loyal service to Sam Walton, that crusher of small towns and enemy of workers’ organizations? And who really cares about Sam Walton’s own sins, when these are our standards? Didn’t he have a funky Southern accent of some kind? Surely such a mellifluous drawl cancels any possibility of elitism.
It is by this familiar maneuver that the people who have designed and supported the policies that have brought the class divide back to America â€šÃ„Ã¬ the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one â€šÃ„Ã¬ perfume themselves with the essence of honest toil, like a cologne distilled from the sweat of laid-off workers. Likewise do their retainers in the wider world â€šÃ„Ã¬ the conservative politicians and the pundits who lovingly curate all this phony authenticity â€šÃ„Ã¬ become jes’ folks, the most populist fellows of them all.
But suppose we read on, and we find the news item about the hedge fund managers who made $2 billion and $3 billion last year, or the story about the vaporizing of our home equity. Suppose we become a little . . . bitter about this. What do our pundits and politicians tell us then?
That there is no place for such sentiment in the Party of the People. That “bitterness” is an ugly and inadmissible emotion. That “divisiveness” is a thing to be shunned at all costs.
Conservatism, on the other hand, has no problem with bitterness; as the champion strategist Howard Phillips said almost three decades ago, the movement’s job is to “organize discontent.” And organize they have. They have welcomed it, they have flattered it, they have invited it in with millions of treason-screaming direct-mail letters, they have given it a nice warm home on angry radio shows situated up and down the AM dial. There is not only bitterness out there; there is a bitterness industry.
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THOMAS FRANK – The Wall Street Journal
Copyright The Wall Street Journal