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WHY WE LOSE! Aarrgh! Some liberal pundits don’t seem to know what makes a person “elitist:”: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, APRIL 15, 2008

THEIR MASTER’S VOICE: Good grief! In the midst of his standard snark, Dana Milbank gives us a portrait today of the press corps in its full glory. Yesterday, Candidates McCain and Obama addressed the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In this passage, Milbank describes what happened just before McCain spoke:

MILBANK (4/15/08): McCain's moderators, the AP's Ron Fournier and Liz Sidoti, greeted McCain with a box of Dunkin' Donuts. "We spend quite a bit of time with you on the back of the Straight Talk Express asking you questions, and what we've decided to do today was invite everyone else along on the ride," Sidoti explained. "We even brought you your favorite treat."

McCain opened the offering. "Oh, yes, with sprinkles!" he said.

Sidoti passed him a cup. "A little coffee with a little cream and a little sugar," she said.

Having asked him all those questions, they brought him his “favorite treat.”

Fournier and Sidoti are professional journalists. Maybe they can engage in this kind of funnin’ and maintain their professional perspective. But the journalistic performance of the past dozen years suggests that many in their cohort cannot—that this performance involves some very bad judgment. A bit later on, Milbank scores the day’s competition:

MILBANK: McCain got a standing ovation—an honor Obama did not receive when his turn came two hours later.

As a general matter, we’ve learned not to trust the things Milbank says about what goes on in a room. But this is a fairly clear-cut description—a description of very bad judgment.

First, they brought him his favorite treat. Then, at the sound of their master’s voice, they gave a standing ovation.

McCain has long been a press corps darling, as major journos have long acknowledged. Obama, of course, has also gotten good press in the past year or so. Milbank summed things up this way: “On the same day, the two media darlings of the presidential election cycle came to address their base—and McCain easily bested his likely opponent.”

If Milbank can be trusted, there was a difference. One hopeful received a standing O—and one other hopeful did not. And one man got his coffee, sir, just the way he likes it. But then, this has gone on for a very long time, even as Major Dems were being savaged by this same cohort. Liberal leaders rarely complained about either part of the deal.

WHY WE LOSE: The Pope is going to convene some huge masses in the next week or so. But the break-away “Cult of the Offhand Comment” has been staging some mass actions also.

Barack Obama’s offhand comment in San Francisco was, in fact, poorly framed. (For our money, some of his subsequent clarifications have been a bit clumsy as well.) But that offhand comment can’t show us his soul, and it doesn’t merit the obsessive scrutiny to which it is being subjected. We’d prefer a loftier discussion—a discussion of what Obama, Clinton or McCain might actually do to affect the prospects of small-town Pennsylvanians. But as you know, there’s a Hard Pundit Law about White House campaigns: Thou shalt not talk about matters of substance! Barred by law from discussing such matters, journalists turn their attention to (let’s cite Milbank this morning) haircuts, fancy shirts, family incomes—and to fleeting remarks, made in passing, recorded on scratchy devices.

Obama’s statement was poorly framed. Who knows—it may even reveal part of the way he thinks about some of these matters. But our biggest columnists have had several days to ponder the meaning of his remarks. The comments they make in their columns today were not composed in an off-hand manner. These comments represent their considered opinion—thinking which is often not grand.

Why do Democrats and progressives sometimes get tagged as elitists? Why not let liberal columnists show us? We start with Richard Cohen, explaining what has been wrong with Hillary Clinton’s reaction to Obama’s remarks. In this passage, Cohen reveals an unfortunate fact—he doesn’t even seem to understand what “elitism” is:

COHEN (4/15/08): [Clinton] turned Obama’s statement into an affront to gun lovers everywhere, which it just might be. But since when is Hillary Clinton a gun lover, a hunter or even a weekend skeet shooter? She is apparently none of the above—at least she will not say when she last fired a gun. The truth, if a guess is allowed, is that she does not give a damn about guns and hunting, and when she brings up her "churchgoing family" and "Our Town" values, they are expressions of treacly nostalgia and not the life of incredible affluence and situational morality she now enjoys.

Whatever one thinks of Clinton’s reactions, Cohen’s presentation is thoroughly clueless. There’s no requirement that a Democratic pol “give a damn about guns and hunting” or be a “weekend skeet shooter;” the problem begins when Democratic pols seem to look down on those who are. In the main, “elitism” isn’t a question of what you do; it’s a question of what you think and say. But right beside Cohen in the Post, Gene Robinson bungles this simple point too. You can’t be more clueless than these guys:

ROBINSON (4/15/08): Clinton bristled, though, when a reporter had the temerity to ask at a news conference when she last attended church or fired a gun. "That is not a relevant question for this debate," she said. "We can answer that some other time. This is about what people feel is being said about them. I went to church on Easter. I mean, so?"

Um, so the issue isn't whether you regularly sit in a church pew or even occasionally go hunting, but whether you can manage to seem like the sort of person who does? I think I need a shot and a beer, too. Just give me whatever the lady's drinking.

That’s right, Dumb-*ss! The issue isn’t whether you go to church—the issue is whether you look down on those who do! We think Obama is being thrashed too hard for a single off-hand comment. But Cohen and Robinson show no sign of understanding the basic shape of this problem. But then, this is a typical failing of liberal elites—of people who have never given a thought to the feelings or views of the small-town rubes who keep screwing up our elections.

In fairness, Cohen and Robinson are hardly alone. All around the liberal world, we’ve seen “thinkers” in the past few days who seem to have no earthly idea what “elitism” even consists in. (Click here for Theda Skocpol. We think Josh’s own post makes basic sense, though we wouldn’t agree with every viewpoint.) Here is Robinson, making another characteristic error:

ROBINSON: Clinton spent the weekend bashing Barack Obama for not seeming to be enough of a regular guy—not for any actual deficit of regular-guyness, mind you, but for giving the impression that such a deficit might exist.

The former first lady, whose family has made $109 million since her husband left the White House, then made a show of demonstrating that she's actually just a regular gal. The point wasn't really to convince anyone that she, Bill and Chelsea commute between their two lavish mansions in a five-year-old Ford F-150 pickup with a gun rack and a "Jesus Rocks!" bumper sticker. Her aim was to prove to the nation—or at least to Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana—that she's better at feigning regularness than Obama.

Little there comprehends the problem. But in the highlighted passage, Robinson does what a string of “liberal” “thinkers” have done in the past few days (including Cohen, in the passage we’ve quoted); he suggests that a person with a high net worth is somehow automatically part of this problem. This, of course, is very similar to the claim that John Edwards can’t possibly care about poverty since he lives in a very big house. In the highlighted passage, Robinson shows that he doesn’t have the first idea what “elitism” even consist in. Elitism isn’t a question of the how much money you have. It’s a question of how you behave toward others who may have less money.

Truly, it has been embarrassing to watch some liberals attempt to come to terms with this matter. Just as an obvious matter of fact, condescension toward average people has plagued progressive movements at least since the late 1960s, when Dr. King stopped being the public face of progressive change and various Middle America-trashers took his place in the public imagination. (Abbie Hoffman, for instance.) In his brilliant public ministry, Dr. King confronted people who turned dogs and hoses loose on children; blew up churches where children were praying; threw him in jail on tortured pretexts; and eventually chased him down and killed him. But quite aggressively, Dr. King refused to deny the soul of the Bull Connors—of those who behaved in such fallen ways. Within a few years, it became possible to tag progressivism with the face of those who loudly showed the world how much they hated the mores and life-styles of their horrible mommies and daddies. From that day to this, progressive politics has been damaged by a sometimes-accurate perception—the perception that progressives and liberals are a bunch of snooty snobs

In fact, progressives sometimes are snooty snobs. We love to display our cultural and moral superiority to those whose values or instincts may differ. We love to call them xenophobes, vigilantes and racists. We love to ridicule their religion (just read the comments whenever Amy Sullivan posts). Indeed, Bob Herbert starts off this morning’s column by giving vent to this very instinct. This is exceptionally sloppy exposition—and it’s probably very bad politics:

HERBERT (4/15/08): Maybe Barack Obama felt he couldn't afford to give the correct answer.

He was asked at a fund-raiser in San Francisco about his campaign's experiences in the run-up to next week's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. One of the main problems, of course, is that he hasn't generated as much support as he'd like among white working-class voters.

There is no mystery here. Except for people who have been hiding in caves or living in denial, it's pretty widely understood that a substantial number of those voters—in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere—will not vote for a black candidate for president.

“There is no mystery here,” Herbert says, betraying the confidence of the elitist. (In his first sentence, he modestly acknowledges that he knows “the correct answer.”) And then he makes a sweeping (if imprecise) assessment of the souls many people; “a substantial number” of Pennsylvanians won’t vote for Obama because of his race, he says. Later, he leans down from the mountaintop, saying this: “No one has an obligation to vote for Mr. Obama, and it's certainly not racist to vote against him.” Gee, thanks! But wouldn’t you know it? Right at the start of his piece, he seems to say something quite different.

Are there people in Pennsylvania who will vote against Obama due to race? Presumably there are—although, in fact, there’s plenty of “mystery” about how “substantial” the “number” might actually be. But at least since the late 1960s, many progressives have behaved just as Herbert does here. It’s our first instinct! We start by attributing the worst possible motives and attributes to wide numbers of everyday people—people whom we’ve never met. What exactly does Herbert mean when he says “a substantial number” of Pennsylvanians won’t vote for Obama due to his race? There’s no way to know for sure—but his formulation seems to take everyone in. This formulation—the first thing he offers—quickly makes everyone suspect. “There is no mystery here,” he says—although, of course, there is.

Unfortunately, many “progressives” simply can’t understand the nature of this decades-old problem. They can’t understand why it’s bad politics (and basically foolish) to ridicule people for being religious. They don’t see why it’s bad politics this week to build jokes around the word “gun-toting.” A few months ago, they didn’t understand why it was morally obnoxious (and vastly stupid) to accuse everyone in sight of being a slobbering racist. Sergio Bendixen, for example—so accused for answering a question he’d been asked about a delicate subject. They could tell that Bendixen was a big vile race man—and that others had conspired with him!

To all appearances, some men get into comedy so they can ridicule women from a stage. Similarly, some people seem to become progressives so they can forever parade about, telling the world about their moral superiority to all the unwashed rubes. For them, progressive politics is about name-calling. A movie is playing in their heads. In this movie, they and their friends are the very good people. Mommy and Daddy are not.

We’d be inclined to say that this political/moral problem began to afflict progressive movements in the late 1960s. And uh-oh! In the last few days, conservative columnists have sometimes shown that they know this terrain rather well. This morning, George Will goes back to FDR to illustrate this liberal problem. We won’t necessarily go along with his assessment of Adlai Stevenson. (He works from a few offhand comments here.) But as a general matter, we think he’s uncomfortably close to the mark as he describes “liberalism's transformation since Franklin Roosevelt:”

WILL (4/15/08): What had been under FDR a celebration of America and the values of its working people has become a doctrine of condescension toward those people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them.

When a supporter told Adlai Stevenson, the losing Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, that thinking people supported him, Stevenson said, "Yes, but I need to win a majority." When another supporter told Stevenson, "You educated the people through your campaign," Stevenson replied, "But a lot of people flunked the course." Michael Barone, in "Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan," wrote: "It is unthinkable that Roosevelt would ever have said those things or that such thoughts ever would have crossed his mind." Barone added: "Stevenson was the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class American culture—the prototype of the liberal Democrat who would judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting."

Many “shirts-and-skins” players will reject any words spoken by Will and Barone. But in this matter, Will and Barone are uncomfortably close to right—and Robinson and Cohen seem largely clueless. But then, conservatives have long understood these matters better than “progressives” have, thereby gaining electoral advantage. Often, they have overstated or misstated particular claims, with mainstream journos playing along. (How dare Kerry go wind-surfing?) But they seem to understand the terrain better than liberal counterparts.

Elitism isn’t about what you do. It isn’t about how much money you have. (FDR was wealthy.) It’s about the things you think and say about those small-town or working-class rubes. Some progressives have shown, again and again, that they simply can’t understand this distinction. Will Obama’s remark cost him votes? We don’t know; we hope they won’t, although we’re beginning to get concerned about his rookie mistakes. But if they do, it will be because there have been so many such remarks, by so many other people, remarks which often weren’t off-hand comments. This has been a major problem for many years; some liberals still seem to lack the first clue about what the problem consists in.

FOR OUR MONEY: For our money, Clinton is hitting Obama too hard about this matter. But then, we think Clinton herself got hit too hard when she was painted as a slobbering racist because (for example) Sergio Bedixen answered a question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/19/08), or because Bill Clinton mentioned Jesse Jackson. (It was a dog-whistle! They could just tell! There was no mystery there!) Understandably, many progressives are crying today about the rough treatment Obama is getting. But some of them acted like ciphers back then, as the Dem campaign turned around. We’ll guess that they’re seeing some payback.

We think you know what happened back then. The shirts could just tell that the skins were racists, as they reliably can.