David Brooks in today’s NYT:

“The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should `go our own way’ has risen sharply.”

It is not until one reads the concluding paragraph of this column that one realizes that Brooks intends for himself to be ranked among the educated class against which some large swath of the public is rebelling.

I think the story Brooks is telling here is probably basically correct, that there is a deep anti-intellectual, anti-technocrat, anti-expert, anti-elitist movement afoot in America and that there is nothing new here.  But it seems to me that the movement has been fueled tremendously by the Obama Administration’s horrible missteps in its handling of the financial crisis and in Obama’s failure to indulge in enough anti-Wall Street populist rhetoric or to have taken enough anti-Wall Street action.  The only explanation for these failures that makes any sense to me is that Obama is to a large extent in the pocket of Wall Street, due to past campaign contributions and anticipated future ones.  I say this because a more forceful anti-Wall Street posture would seem to be such an obvious political requirement, with virtually no downside for the administration beyond the possible alienation of some big donors.  It strains credulity that the credit-rating agencies, just to take one example, may well emerge from the financial crisis unscathed, essentially unregulated, and in better financial shape than ever.  This really is scandalous and would constitute, in and of itself, a huge indictment of the American political system.

I don’t see any conceivable workable alternative in the modern world to government by technocratic elites.  But of course being well educated does not provide immunity from error – far from it.  Obama has made a tragic error, in my judgment, in not providing better legislative and rhetorical leadership in response to the financial crisis.  The error is both political and substantive, it will hurt in the coming midterm elections, and it undermines confidence in the technocratic elites, just as Brooks says.

8 Responses

  1. I agree with what you have said about the failure of Obama to take on Wall Street. It’s quite possible that this failure has contributed to anti-intellectualism in the US — or to the resentments behind such views. But there are many other factors — e.g., I suppose, worsening economic conditions, lack of education, and the vicious propaganda from right wing demagogues — and I think some of these would figure larger.

  2. Zach,

    To me it seems like the latest outgrowth of the hardhats vs hippies conflict of 1968. Straight vs. hip. Redneck vs. whatever.

    Clinton represented the hippies (in the right’s view) so they hated him. They got their way with both Bush’s. They hate the left so much that they can’t admit any imperfection, even when it’s obvious — like for GW’s two terms.

    Now it’s Obama. It doesn’t matter what he says. What matters is who he is.

    Rick (from the W’s board)

    1. Rick:

      Good to hear from you.

      I don’t really know how to assess your thesis. My emotional reaction is to think that the hip versus straight conflict is a sort of idée fixe of yours that is not at all paramount in virulent anti-Obama sentiment, because I don’t think Obama seems that hip to anyone. My sense is that virulent anti-Obama sentiment represents resentment against the “new class,” which he and Michelle represent, “new class” being highly paid and Ivy League-trained knowledge workers. This is further complicated by issues of race and affirmative action. I think we are seeing the reoccurence of the problems that Obama was having in the primary in Pennsylvania, a weakness among working-class white voters. This weakness has been exacerbated by his failure to be sufficiently anti-Wall Street, either rhetorically or substantively.

      1. Zach,

        We aren’t going to agree on this. I think you’re focusing on the last few years instead of the last 55 or so. Or maybe 155.

        This is a right vs. left thing. On the right, we have the old South and its racist descendents, the anti-communists, other racists and xenophobes, fundamentalist religionists, some blue collars and the like. They stand opposed to relaxation of their view of morality, mixing of the races, anybody that looks too different and anybody that might take some of their money and give it to poor peole of a different color.

        Hip vs straight is a historical reality and a shorthand.

        There is nothing that Obama can do that will please them. This is about who he is, not what he does.

        You can’t look at the race and style of the Republican vs. Democratic conventions and seriously think the difference has to do with recent policies. This isn’t about his actions regarding Wall Street. It’s that he’s African American, percieved as liberal, has a foreign name and comes out of the Democratic party.

        I read an interesting bit of research on child development. I can’t recall the citation, so I apologize for that. It said that children aren’t affected much by what their parents say, but, rather, by who they are.

        That’s what’s going on here.

        1. Rick: What I said was primarily at work was anti-elitism. The elitism being opposed was then further specified as “new class” elitism. There was also some anti-elitism involved in the old hip vs. straight opposition of the 1960’s, that is, the “hip” were thought by many who were repelled by them to be self-indulgent and pampered children of the middle class. I think it would be important just to reply to my main point, viz., I don’t think that most of Obama’s opponents, even the most virulently anti-Obama redneck pickup drivers, object to Obama because he is hip, or is a descendent of 1960’s hippies. Clearly, some people find Obama threatening in some deep way, but it’s not because they think he’s hip, or terribly anti-establishment. He could be threatening as a person of color without making the further inference that a person of color represents hipness to opponents in some way. If you want to say that Obama represents the old hip as coopted and integrated into the system, and that it is this new liberal interpretation of the establishment, which includes transmogrified hipness as part of its deep persona, OK. I mean, I’m not going to deny that Democrats are hipper than Republicans, that’s true. Also, I don’t really think that Obama-haters hate him for who he is, because I don’t think they know who he is. People object to what he represents: social engineering and the imposition by the establishment culture of liberal values, a new interpretation of meritocracy, and cosmopolitanism, including race-mixing. None of this has that much to do with hipness, except in an attenuated way, i.e. with hipness as it has been modified by another forty years of history.

          1. The problem I have with using elitism as the organizing principle is that Bush was a skull and bones eli, son of a President, grandson of a Senator, and they loved him.

            This is us vs. them (from the right point of view). The problem I’m trying to address is to find what unifies their vision of “us”.

            Here’s one level of analysis. If you simply look at the hairstyles of Republicans and Democrats, for the most part, they separate pretty well. That blond D from Ohio whose name I can’t think of right now was a rare exception.

            Why is that? It seems to me there is a matter of personal style involved that transcends anything related to policy. It’s not what anybody is saying, it’s who they are.

            How the groups separated in this manner is not simple. In my lifetime I saw it as dividing on Civil Rights and the Vietman War. But, for the first half of the century it was on issues related to socialism, communism, unions and so forth.

            Another analysis might focus on acceptance vs. questioning of authority. But the right will not accept authority if they see it as leftist, or question it if they see it as rightist.

            Another way is to think about people’s openness to novel experience and associated fears. So the current right is composed of all the racists, the haters of gay rights, the xenophobes, the traditional family values people (who, as far as I can tell were pro religion and against sex in the media) and a few I’m forgetting.

            But, even this analysis fails. The xenophobes love Israel (go figure). The religionists embrace individuals who have been divorced and screwed their ex’es, and abdicated their roles within the traditional family (come on! where were they when Palin has a baby and hits the road for a year) while giving no credit to individuals, like Obama, who have lived the values the traditionalists espouse.

            So, Zach, to me this feels like it has something to do with tribalism — a fundamental issue of identify that has nothing to do with this year’s policies. It’s more like big social movements.

          2. Rick:

            I like your point to the effect that the Right will accept authority on the Right, but not on the Left. I wonder how true this is of the self-identified libertarians, who I suppose are neither right nor left in their own minds. I think a lot of them really are opposed to virtually all authority.

            There is a connection between elitism and authority. One can also ask whether the nonlibertarian right accepts right-wing elites but not left-wing ones, and I think the answer is probably, in general, a resounding “yes.”

            I just want to note that, as of today, I have the authority of Paul Krugman in his Times column for the idea that Obama’s failure to be tougher on banks and Wall Street has led to a lot of additional venom directed against him and has been very harmful to him politically. Robert Scheer said the same thing on “Left, Right, and Center” on January 15. So this is just an argument from authority, but I am far from the only person who thinks that current policy is far from irrelevant in assessing anti-Obama venom.

  3. I’m willing to accept the notion that Obama’s popularity is waning because of those current issues. That’s the antipathy.

    The venom is something else again. I’d attribute that to issues of identity that are hard to analyze.

    I miss you over on the W’s board Zach.


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