We Americans are a funny lot – we like exceptional people, the extraordinarily talented entertainer, the artist who moves us all, or the athlete who does the impossible at just the right moment, sinking that shot at the buzzer or hitting the homerun in the bottom of the ninth that wins the game. And there’s always the quiet guy with the brilliant idea that both makes our lives better and makes him fabulously wealthy, or your fourth-grade teacher who changed your life, or Paris Hilton. The world would be dull and flat indeed if everyone was like your neighbors, Fred and Mable, or like you. But of course we also believe everyone is created equal – no one is better than anyone else, and they’d better not claim they are. That is, after all, how we started the country, declaring everyone has at least three rights that cannot be taken away by any government, or by anyone – the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In that way, we’re all equal, even if we’ve been working out the specific details involved in these matters for more than two hundred years.
Jefferson and the founders only modified John Locke a tiny bit – Locke had the three inalienable rights as life, liberty and property. Modern Republicans wish the founders had not made that change, but that’s a matter for another day – and our government can seize your land in order to build a highway or military base, tossing you a few dollars for your trouble, and can assess taxes for the common good, which is sort of taking your property. Things do work better that way. Modern Republicans will eventually get over it. It’s just one of the details that need attention.
But the basic conflict has always been clear enough – we love those who do what no one else has done or can do, and do it well, while at the same time we are populists, telling ourselves those people are, really, just like us, or really, that we’re just like them. All men are created equal. You just forget the words that follow, saying this is only about the three rights listed – as they say in modern advertizing, certain conditions apply. We ignore that – all men really are created equal. It says so. So you see, if things had worked out differently, if we had made different choices here and there, we too could do whatever it is we those stars do – play basketball like Michael Jordan, become a rock star, invent a clever gizmo and retire to Tahiti, or grow up to be president.
Deep down we know that’s hogwash – you may want to sing opera and just not have the pipes, as the basic equipment you received genetically isn’t right for that career, and no amount of ambition and training and enthusiasm can make it right. You may be a kid who dreams of playing in the NBA, but trapped in the body of Danny DeVito, with slow reflexes you cannot seem to override, well, that’s just not going to happen. Some of us long ago dreamed of playing alongside Miles Davis or whatever, but finally figured out that we reached the limit of our talent with that pick-up band one night long ago in Newark, Ohio. You know a wall when you hit it. Living out here in Hollywood, in this apartment building just above the Sunset Strip, you are reminded of this every day – there’s the pleasant young man next door forever singing scales, doing his arpeggios, always off to another audition or American Idol open tryout. When the other neighbor’s cat hides in the shrubbery down by the pool, panting and panicked, you know heartache is coming for this fellow. And down by the pool there’s sometimes the sweet young thing in an amazingly small and carefully structured bikini with a photographer she’s hired – fancy camera on an expensive tripod, big flats and assorted lights – posing for those shots she’ll shop around trying to find an agent. And every third adult in Los Angeles is writing a screenplay. The idea that anyone can become anything they want to be, if they try hard, is an idea that persists. We all want to believe it.
And we really hate being told the truth – some people have more talent, more intelligence, better connections, or just better luck. There is an elite – even if we hate elitists, those who think they’re better than we are, those people are, really, better than we are.
Much of the recent presidential campaign centered on this – McCain and Palin were campaigning on the common man theme, the idea they were like the rest of us, impulsive, making decisions from instinct, but instinct that flowed from simple and obvious values no one need examine as, really, everyone shares those values. Neither of them claimed to be particularly smart or thoughtful – they were just common folks like us, with firm beliefs, ready to act on those beliefs. And Palin was clearly uninformed on a wide range of the issues – but just as clearly didn’t see that as much of a problem. Her supporters seem to agree on that – she was lively and exciting, and her heart was in the right place. She spoke for everyone who didn’t know much, but knew what was right – she was one of us. When you added Joe the Plumber to the mix you got the whole package – the one side of the conflict we all feel, that deep-seated idea we’re all equal and no one is any better than anyone else, nor should they claim to be. So a vote for them was a vote for yourself – and a vote for the American Dream, so to speak. That would be the dream where you can be what you dream of being, the most powerful person in the world, the president, if you wish – they’d pretty much do that for you, as your surrogates. To many, this was overwhelmingly compelling.
Obama and Biden went the other way, choosing to emphasize the exceptional over the common. Obama was always elegant, gentlemanly, and thoughtful – he did not hide the fact that he was pretty smart, superbly educated, informed on all the issues in great detail, and that he could explain things with clarity and passion in inspiring speeches he wrote himself. Over and over again his opponents called him an elitist – saying that he obviously thinks he’s better than us. But he just smiled and said, okay, I’ve thought about things – the issues we face these days – and chatted with some pretty big guns who know things – and then thought some more, and here’s what I think can be done and how we can do it. It was a non-response. Except for one unfortunate bit of bowling with the locals in Altoona, when Hillary Clinton was deep into her Annie Oakley and drink-beer-with-the-guys phase during the Pennsylvania primary, Obama didn’t take the bait. He didn’t dumb-down his campaign. He went for the other side of the equation – our admiration for the exceptional.
That was just a different calculation. Think about it this way – out here in Los Angeles you can pay a scalper seven or eight hundred bucks, or probably much more, for a ticket to a Lakers game so you can sit courtside just behind Jack Nicholson. But you want to see Kobe Bryant play, not Marvin, the pleasant kid who lives down the street and works at Home Depot. So, by extension, if you have to choose someone to be in administrative charge of most everything the government does, you might want someone who is not common, and is, in fact, exceptional. Yeah, you can sort of hear John McCain or Sarah Palin saying we all – or all real Americans – resent Kobe Bryant, this guy who thinks he can play basketball better than anyone else, who thinks he’s better than us. Who does Kobe Bryant think he is?
Of course that’s absurd. But sometimes people don’t get it – they need a visual example that has to do with the presidency, not basketball or bowling. And they got that in mid-September when the financial crises broke – if Congress didn’t pass a seven hundred billion dollar rescue package, within days, financial systems here and around the world would seize up and it would be the Great Depression again. This immediate rescue package was our only hope, and some folks were opposed to it.
Everyone saw what happened. It was classic. McCain announced he was suspending his campaign and would fly to Washington immediately, to butt heads or kick ass or something – he’d get everyone to agree and get this thing passed. And he said he wouldn’t get back to campaigning until this was settled, and he also had no intention to participate in the first presidential debate, as he’d be too busy saving the world. Obama said he wouldn’t butt in down in Washington, unless asked, and he’d work behind the scenes to do what he could. McCain called Obama irresponsible and not, like him, a leader – doing something dynamic and putting country before political considerations.
Then, by all accounts, McCain made a fool of himself – Republican opposition to the rescue plan increased, dramatically – and then, after Obama mentioned that presidents really do have to be able to do several things at once, McCain showed up for the debate. His campaign seemed to have decided it would look bad if Obama showed up – all calm, cool, and collected – and had those ninety minutes on stage all to himself. Of course that reversal was a bit embarrassing, but no more embarrassing than announcing, as the vote on the rescue package was finally underway, that he, John McCain, because of his selfless leadership, was solely responsible for the passage of this legislation that had saved us all – he did it, and Obama had nothing to do with it. And then the vote was extended a bit, and the legislation did not pass – the House Republicans he had worked on voted it down, and the markets crashed again.
It was like watching Marvin, the pleasant kid who lives down the street and works at Home Depot. McCain put himself in the game, he did his moves. He wasn’t very good – he actually was a disaster. But he kept saying that even with the unfortunate outcome, he at least had displayed real leadership. That might have been the turning point of the election.
And it seems to have been a turning point in another way. Perhaps this was the point where anyone-can-do-it became not-cool-at-all. Populism, with its no special talent and no special knowledge elements, may have started to seem both stupid and dangerous. Elitism started to look pretty good.
After the election there is evidence that kids now are getting into the idea that playing dumb surly is bullshit – knowing things and being thoughtful may be pretty cool after all. You get things like this – Obama as a Role Model: Students, Educators Share Excitement. Being smart and competent, and being successful, is becoming cool – the dropout Gangsta and the goofy star footballer become rather pathetic. And of course out here, in the Los Angeles Times, you get Obama’s Victory Will Help Inner-City Kids Look Beyond Sports:
“If Obama can be president, well, this gives us hope,” said Darius Turner, an astute senior defensive back who is said to have a future in big-time college football. “Kobe doesn’t have to be everybody’s role model anymore.”
No offense to Kobe, but that was music to my ears
This of course leaves conservatives in disarray.
Mark Lilla offers this item in the Wall Street Journal – there is no intellectual right any longer, thinking deep thoughts about public policy. Now it’s all Sarah Palin, the world of denial and contempt:
The Palin farce is already the stuff of legend. [But] John McCain’s choice was not a fluke, or a senior moment, or an act of desperation. It was the result of a long campaign by influential conservative intellectuals to find a young, populist leader to whom they might hitch their wagons in the future. And not just any intellectuals. It was the editors of National Review and the Weekly Standard, magazines that present themselves as heirs to the sophisticated conservatism of William F. Buckley and the bookish seriousness of the New York neoconservatives. After the campaign for Sarah Palin, those intellectual traditions may now be pronounced officially dead.
It’s all downhill from here:
Their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency; it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.
They bet on the wrong side of the conflict. Things have changed. Being elite is cool again, as long as you’re cool about it.