Tom Frank, author of What's the Matter With Kansas, founder of the much-lamented journal The Baffler, and someone I had the pleasure of interviewing back in my hairy youth has an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal focusing on the continuing controversy over Barack Obama's supposed dis of blue-collar folk in the Rust Belt:
Consider, for example, the one fateful charge that the punditry and the other candidates have fastened upon Mr. Obama – "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.Although I've had my differences with Tom over the years, not least over his own tendency to mobilize a sort of alternative populism -- evident in this evocative passage -- against academics who study mass culture, I agree with him 100% here. The way in which the Clinton campaign has borrowed the "elitist" charge from the Right and used it to defame Obama makes me retch. While I would probably vote for any Democratic nominee against John McCain, I sure would think twice before picking Clinton. Not because I doubt her ability to be an effective President. Given the constraints that anyone in that position will face after eight disastrous years of George W. Bush, she could probably get more done than most. But the way she, her husband and their handlers have comported themselves in the primaries has me less eager to support her than I was to support the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000. And that's saying something.
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 – the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one – 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 – the conservative politicians and the pundits who lovingly curate all this phony authenticity – become jes' folks, the most populist fellows of them all.