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March 14, 2004 - Should elitist snobs like me feel guilty?

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Here’s an interesting contention.  The French, and specifically Dominique de Villepin, their Minister of Foreign Affairs, convinced America to invade Iraq, overthrow its government and occupy its territory – really, honest. 

I came across this curious item on elitism, and indeed, the author, at the end of it, actually does make that very argument.  And the route by which he arrives at that idea is not all that circuitous.  Really. 

First off, Tom Frank is the author of One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy (Doubleday, New York, 2000). 


Market populism?  Frank explains the basic idea is that the free market is in essence a democracy.  Since we all participate in markets - buying stock, choosing between brands of shaving cream, going to movie X instead of movie Y - markets are an expression of the "vox populi"


Markets give us what we want; markets overthrow the old regime; markets empower the little guy.  Markets are good.  A nice form of populism.  Vox Populii, Vox Dei?  It means the voice of the people is the voice of God. 

Vox populi, vox Dei.  You are acquitted, Captain Croker,” says Sherlock Holmes at the end of “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” to the man who has actually committed the crime.  Heck, anyone with half a brain by the end of the tale knows Croker did the right thing, even if it was done in passion, and not exactly legal.  Holmes lets him go.  He doesn’t turn him in.  Holmes plays God, for the common people.

Frank discusses populism as not exactly the voice of God, but as something that needs examining.  What he wants to examine here, however, is not the benevolent market populism from his book, but its evil doppelganger, backlash populism. 

See The Elitism Myth
Tom Frank, Tom Paine, a Public Interest Journal, Published: Mar 08 2004

On Tuesday, January 6, 2004 over on my daily web log I posted Truth in Advertising: Do NOT Drive a Volvo!   - about an anti-Dean television spot.  It hammered hard on the eastern elites from a supposedly mid-western (Iowa) populist perspective. 

Frank uses that item to open his argument:


A commercial airs on Iowa television in which the then-front-runner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Howard Dean, was blasted for being the choice of the cultural elites: a "tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show" who had no business trying to talk to the plain folk of Iowa. 

The commercial was sponsored by the Club for Growth, a Washington-based organization dedicated to hooking up pro-business rich people with pro-business politicians.  The organization is made up of anti-government economists, prominent men of means and big thinkers of the late New Economy, celebrated geniuses of the sort that spent the past 10 years describing the low-tax, deregulated economy as though it were the second coming of Christ.  In other words, the people who thought they saw Jesus in the ever-ascending NASDAQ, the pundits who worked themselves into a lather singing the praises of new billionaires, the economists who made a living by publicly insisting that privatization and deregulation were the mandates of history itself are now running television commercials denouncing the "elite."


Vox Populii, Vox Dei indeed!  

In fact this is curious.  Frank points out that thanks to the rightward political shift of the past thirty years, wealth is today concentrated in fewer hands than it has been since the twenties; workers have less power over the conditions under which they work ever before “in our lifetimes” - and the corporation has become the most powerful actor in our world.  He is puzzled that this rightward shift – and he says it is still going strong to this day – “sells itself as a war against elites, a righteous uprising of the little guy against an obnoxious upper class.”

Yep, it doesn’t make much sense.  And he adds the final irony:


At the top of it all sits President George W.  Bush, a former Texas oilman, a Yale graduate, the son of a U.S.  president and a grandson of a U.S.  senator - the beneficiary of every advantage that upper America is capable of showering on its sons - and a man who also declares that he has a populist streak because of all the disdain showered upon him and his Texas cronies by the high-hats of the East.  Bush’s populism is for real.  His resentment of the East-coast snobs is objectively ridiculous, but it is honestly felt.  The man undeniably has the common touch; his ability to speak to average people like one of their own is a matter of public record.  And they, in return, seem genuinely to like the man.  Bush shows every sign of being able to carry a substantial part of the white working-class vote this November, just as he did four years ago (although 90 percent of black Americans voted Democrat in 2000).


Yep, this is a pretty neat trick.  Bush is a man of the people?  Guess so…. 

Frank argues this is all a calculated public relations effort.  It is the careful creation and cultivation of backlash populism:


… Republicans are still the party of corporate management, but they have also spent years honing their own populist approach, a melange of anti-intellectualism, promiscuous God-talk and sentimental evocations of middle America in all its humble averageness.  Richard Nixon was the first Republican president to understand the power of this combination and every victorious Republican since his administration has also cast himself in a populist light.  Bush is merely the latest and one of the most accomplished in a long line of pro-business politicians expressing themselves in the language of the downtrodden. 

Against these maddeningly sissified tastes, backlash populism posits a true-blue heartland where real Americans eat red meat in big slabs, know all about farming, drink Budweiser, work hard with their hands and drive domestic cars.  (In November 2000, the Democrats lost in the heartland but won in cosmopolitan California, New York and Massachusetts.) Why the focus on consumer goods?  It switches the political polarity of class resentment: the items identified with the elite are also identified with people who have advanced degrees, a reliably liberal constituency.  Liberals become the snobs, and Republicans become the plain people in their majestic millions.  That right-wing oil millionaires in Houston or Wichita might also vacation in Europe, drink fancy coffee and drive Jaguars is simply not considered, as if contrary to nature. 

The all-Americans despise the affected elites with their highfalutin ways, and that’s why they vote for plainspoken men like George Bush, or his dad, or Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon, that ultimate victim of East Coast disdain.  Each of whom, once elected, did his level best to shower the nation's elite with policy gifts of every description.


Yep, and folks lap it up.  Martha Stewart becomes one of the oppressed.  Bill O’Reilly pulls down sixty million a year and claims he’s a regular guy (maybe he gets enough fiber in his diet).  People are always picking on the humble, honest ah-shucks college dropouts who made their hundreds of million by pure hard work, like Ken Lay or Bernie Evers.  Common folk.  Well, if people want to think of themselves as just like these folks, that’s democracy for you. 

Frank does point out how there really is some reason for folks to buy this line of crap:


Certain kinds of leftists really do vacation in Europe and drive Volvos and drink lattes.  (Hell, almost everyone drinks lattes now.)  And there is a small but very vocal part of the Left that has nothing but contempt for the working class.  Should you ever attend a meeting of a local animal-rights organization, or wander through the campus of an elite university, you will notice that certain kinds of Left politics are indeed activities reserved for members of the educated upper-middle-class, for people who regard politics more as a personal therapeutic exercise than an effort to build a movement.  For them, the Left is a form of mildly soothing spirituality, a way of getting in touch with the deep authenticity of the downtrodden and of showing you care.  Buttons and stickers desperately announce the liberal’s goodness to the world, as do his or her choice in consumer products.  Leftist magazines treat protesting as a glamour activity, running photos of last month’s demo the way society magazines print pictures from the charity ball.  There is even a brand of cologne called Activist. 

Then there is that species of leftist who believes that being on the Left is an inherited honor, a nobility of the blood.  There is little point in trying to convert others to the cause, they will tell you, especially in benighted places like the deep midwest: you’re either born to it or you aren’t.  This species of leftist will boast about the historical deeds of red-diaper babies or the excellent radical pedigree of so-and-so, son of such-and-such, utterly deaf to the repugnant similarities between what they are celebrating and simple aristocracy. 


Hey?  Anyone out there feeling guilty?  No?  Really? 

Anyway, as I mentioned, Frank does get around to the war and that French fellow, De Villepin.  He takes us back to the UN in the run up to the war. 


Here he was, a well-dressed and accomplished man, soundly refuting the arguments of the Americans, speaking several different languages, even receiving open applause from the UN representatives of much of the world as he berated the U.S.  Secretary of State, who stoically endured the abuse of his social superior, for this obvious error or that. 

What the brilliant De Villepin missed utterly was that American conservatives don’t care when their arguments are refuted.  The United States is the land of militant symbolism, the nation of images, and in the battle of imagery Bush played De Villepin for a sucker.  For Bush the task at hand was obviously not winning over the UN, but rallying domestic support for the war, and in doing so Bush couldn’t have asked for a more convincing populist drama.  Saddam Hussein was a monster right out of central casting, and for opposing him the poor unassuming Americans were being castigated by this foppish, over-educated, hair-splitting, tendentious writer of poetry (De Villepin’s dabbling in verse was much reported in the American media).  And a Frenchman to boot!   The French are always characterized in American popular culture as a nation of snobs: they drink wine, they eat cheese, they’re polite.  This man was the hated liberal elite in the flesh: all that was missing was the revelation that he wore perfume or carried a handbag. 

In his erudite, principled opposition, De Villepin thus sold the war to Americans far more effectively than did Bush himself.  Indeed, had the foreign secretary of any other nation led the fight against the United States, the war might not have happened.  If Bush is really smart, he’ll engineer a repeat confrontation with De Villepin just before the elections.


Now that IS an idea!

Frank’s advice to those who would like Bush replaced?  He says that until the American left decides “to take a long, unprejudiced look at deepest America, at the kind of people who think voting for George Bush constitutes a blow against the elite, they are fated to continue their slide to oblivion.”

He thinks the left ought to try to understand how things really stand.  Bush and Kerry both went to Yale, they both have long pedigrees in wealth and influence, and neither is exactly living on the economic edge.  But Bush is a man of the people, and Kerry is not. 

Now Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and FDR were, somehow or other, “men of the people” in our popular mythology, in spite of their family histories.  One might consider how they pulled that off. 

Bush become “a man of the people” just by appearing to be dumb, stubborn, more than bit mean and sneeringly anti-intellectual – and quite proud of each of those traits.  Jack Kennedy appeared to be the opposite.  Have the times changed?  This is a puzzle.  Kerry had better find the answer to it. 


Oh, and by the way, this Frank essay first appeared in the February 2004 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. 


I love irony. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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