Unlike the days of debates about lipstick comments and flag pins, the past week has been dominated by major issues. The House bailout bill, which we were told early and often was sure to pass, suffered a bipartisan defeat. A spate of stories and polls claimed to show that if Sen. Obama loses, it will be because of racism, particularly on the part of many Democrats. An interview of Gov. Palin by Katie Couric led several pundits to suggest Palin should withdraw from the ticket. Disparate as they are, these events are not unrelated, but rather are all emanations of the great underlying current of this election.
Sen. Obama, when he was a relatively unknown underdog, captured the idea that he was the embodiment of change. But with time, as the public heard his comments about bitter clingers, and learned of his affiliations with leftists who damn America, that change came to seem politically too radical and culturally too conformist.
Enter Gov. Sarah Palin. Sen. Obama attacked her because he knew she threatened his claim to own “change” writ large. But his critique of her was nothing compared to the long knives that came out from those who felt truly insulted and threatened: the self-imagined elites.
In the old definition, elites had intellectual merit, the wisdom gained from thought, learning, and reflection. They were different, and knew they were different. But like Aristotle, who valued common opinion even if it needed refining, they saw their fellow citizens as having reasonable intelligence and the capacity for judgment. William F. Buckley knew as much or more than most of his elite contemporaries, but for sound judgment he famously said he’d prefer the first names in the Boston phone book over Harvard’s faculty.
Today elitism has other connotations. First is the idea that the intellectual, the expert, can understand things the ordinary Joe can’t. As Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College entoned, common opinion is precisely what the new elites believe they need to overcome, along the way to imposing their superior vision.
The second understanding of elitism is cultural – a state of social belonging, or exclusion, based largely on similar educational, professional, or other demographic characteristics. Elites sneer at the same thing, if only to prove to each other that they are not one of them.The intellectual contempt for different opinions is well captured in the recent rush to prophylacticly ascribe any Obama loss to racism. AFL-CIO official Bill George was quoted saying that his members weren’t “educated” enough to support Obama, but that he’ll “educate” them. What an exceptional expression of contempt for one’s own, or for the possibility that there exist other legitimate viewpoints about who would best lead the country. Telling, too; it assumes that such Americans are too stupid to notice.
But they are not; the phone lines were jammed at the Capitol this past week by many of those same Americans who had had it with putative elites getting us into a mess, then foisting the cost on the taxpayer, while having the very same people supervise the clean-up operation. To the left, that meant President Bush and Secretary Paulson; to the right, that meant financial “experts” like Cong. Barney Frank and Sen. Chris Dodd, who vehemently and repeatedly denied any problem at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and stymied attempts at reform. How’d that work out? To many people, it was one more example of self-serving elites deciding they knew best. Right or wrong, a lot of congressmen who wanted to be re-elected listened to this public roar.
Intellectual contempt also showed itself in some of the reaction to the Palin/Couric interview. Kathleen Parker sniffed that Palin was “out of her league,” and Fareed Zakaria similarly hopes she’ll decide to “spend more time with her family.” But what was singularly stupid was the economic question Couric asked-as though spending $700 billion on a long wish list of economic subsidies and transfer payments was an alternate proposal to restore liquidity and confidence to credit markets and accurate valuations to illiquid toxic securities. While many scoff about Palin’s lack of foreign policy “experience,” weren’t we told we’d had enough of that with Cheney? And do we recall how derided that ignorant cowboy Reagan was? It’s good to remember that judgment trumps mileage. For many voters, someone with a long history of bad calls may be less appealing than someone with good sense.
It may not be visible to those whose noses are too high in the air to see their fellow citizens, but to many the uncoached Gov. Palin is attractive precisely because she reminds them of the virtues of plain speaking, decisive action, and a certain moral clarity where actions have consequences, people of goodwill have different views, and no Americans are more equal than others. The modern elitists may not like it, but for many, that’s the change we deserve.