Monday, April 14, 2008

Elitism in American Politics

The supposedly hurtful nub of Barack Obama's recent comments is the following:

... they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
This has been taken to mean that Obama is explaining the charm of guns, the appeal of religion, and the pull of nativism -- that in the absence of political factors, people would be indifferent to guns, would never have bothered with religion, and would welcome unfettered free trade and the widest imaginable multiculturalism.

No. This is a tendentious and fallacious reading of what Obama is saying (and not expressing effectively, as he freely admits). Obama is not accounting for the origins of beliefs and commitments, but for the origins of politics centered on particular beliefs and commitments. He is suggesting that people have gravitated to a politics focused on "god, guns, and guts" because they have seen -- and have been strongly encouraged to see -- the failures and shortcomings of other forms of politics centered on other values.

For decades, American conservatives have consciously fed a sense of outrage centered on "god, guns, and guts," part and parcel of which is an embittered attack on "cultural elites" and "government bureaucrats" who threaten "traditional values" and thumb their noses at "common sense." Fundamentally this politics is about redefining elitism: it removes elitism from the realm of the economic and diverts it to the cultural. This is the game of politics as it has been played in the United States; it doesn't explain religious belief or other cultural markers, but makes political use of them. (And fair enough, by the way.)

The beliefs and commitments existed well before the politics and will endure beyond them. There is nothing insincere about the beliefs or commitments, nor do they have a simple etiology, whether political or otherwise; they are as genuine as any other expression of human culture. Barack Obama recognizes this, but he is calling attention to the political uses made of them as he seeks to widen the political frame.



Paul said...

Beautiful analysis!

Domestically Challenged said...

Oh please, let's be honest. We are all elitists, no matter which mirror we choose to look upon.

Dale said...

Absolutely, DC. At a minimum, anyone running for president thinks he/she is ready to be president, and that entails a pretty high self-opinion. And that self-opinion implies an opinion of superiority to the crowded field of people also trying for it.

The president should be elite. He or she should be special and well above the average joe. And he/she shouldn't go around pretending otherwise.

Geez. What a bunch of bullshit this "bittergate" is.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

The whole damn herculean effort by the bobblehead confederacy to frame the discussion to promote The Candidate They Like™ has actually transcended depressing and gone into utter despair.

Most people who are eating this tedium up have also completely missed the irong of people who consider themselves elite damning someone else by painting them as ... eilite.

They know most people are dumbashell.

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

I meant "irony" there, not "irong".

Drat blogger for not letting you edit your comments.

Dale said...

SJKP, you made a good point. Typos happen.

Who needs spelling / typo avoidance? Those are for weeners.