5.9.08

TUNDRA POPULISM. Reason offers its counter-Establishmentarian view of the Republican ticket.



Chip Bok's Friday Funnies:

Tim Cavanaugh's Snobs Vs. Saabs (isn't that an equivalence class?) argues that identity politics isn't limited to the Officially Oppressed Minorities.

The Republicans are taking white middle-class identity politics to the next level.

White identity politics have been around for a while, in the form of cracker culture humor, Gretchen Wilson records, and the war on arugula. But these forms tend to have a spiky, in-your-face defiance. The brilliance of vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin's roof-raising speech lay in its supple, open-ended technique.

I remember "pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals who couldn't park a bicycle straight." Such brass-knuckled methods, however, are not required. The so-called progressive (one-time) consensus has failed to deliver on its promises, and its political economy is suspect.
In Palin's delivery, the ancient battle cry of the American working class—"You think you're better than me?"—was emptied of its narcissism and butch bluntness, reconfigured with qualities we don't ordinarily associate with salt of the earth Americans: dry wit, newsy allusiveness, a confidence that the people you're addressing don't need to have the jokes explained to them. It wasn't surprising that the hockey mom pounded Barack Obama bloody with sallies against his alleged elitism (though whoever put out the pre-speech disinformation that Palin would not be used as an "attack dog" deserves an award at this year's Rovies). It was surprising that she did so while maintaining such a sunny, gracious, genteel demeanor. Through 3,000 words of political aikido, Palin seemed to be doing something the left and right agree working people should never be allowed to do. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
The one thing the Establishment, and its Excessively Earnest Acolytes on the talking-head shows and in the common rooms can't stand, is to be laughed at. The original intent of the Badger Herald, set up as a conservative counter-establishment paper at Wisconsin, and the Alternative, a similar project at Indiana that became The American Spectator, was to poke fun at the prevailing pretensions. (We have yet to consider the full implications of the point guard trash-talking the small forward. Watch for that to come out.) The approach works very well. The Establishmentarians can dish it out (Ann Richards, Phil Donahue, Michael Moore) but they have trouble taking it. Thus Mr Cavanaugh's prediction is likely to come true.
The aw-shucks quality and class warfare elements here are familiar. The indirection, sarcasm, and unembarrassed intelligence are new. It's a measure of how surprising Palin's style was that so many of her detractors could respond only with rage, incomprehension, and irrelevant complaints. In particular, Palin's Democratic counterpart Joseph Biden's predictable-as-Pickett's-Charge objection that the speech lacked substance sets up a very plausible scenario for the vice presidential debate: I'm willing to predict that the hyper-informed Biden will demonstrate his mastery of the facts, leave no doubt about his flair for complex policy questions, get his ass handed to him in the debate, and never understand what went wrong.

That is, if Senator Biden doesn't put everybody to sleep first. Remember Vice President Gore, with his reference to some obscure yet important to him piece of legislation?

It's also likely that the ticket's appeal to libertarian voters, west of the 100th meridian or not, will bring the kind of intellectual ammunition to back up the proper challenge to a social engineer (If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?) with accessible theoretical and empirical evidence to rebut the substance of those anticipated complex responses.

That makes the give and take of political culture war more complex. Obama and Biden are both agile enough politicians that they could probably (between bites of brie and sips of pinot grigio) handle the sort of flat-footed regular guy attack George W. Bush used against the ossified Al Gore and John Kerry. John McCain is a different type of opponent, while Sarah Palin is a type they have never seen before.

McCain's choice of Palin now looks less like an attempt to replicate Hillary Clinton than to put in place an anti-Hillary Clinton: soft-edged rather than hard, tough where Clinton was brittle, and familiar enough with trailer park America to speak ordinary people's language without treating them like chumps.

The attempts to paint Obama as a toffish fancypants throughout this year have been mostly absurd. But Palin managed to make them all seem relevant again, and it won't be so easy for the Democrats to change the subject to economic, rather than social, class. Every poor American thinks he's got a rich American inside, fighting to get out. And Americans at all levels have a deep distrust of hipsters. As Obama and Biden begin their autumn of hunting and beer-drinking photo ops, they might want to keep that in mind.

Particularly with the tundra populists aroused, as this week seems to have done.

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