Smart Tolerant Professionals are the Real Americans

Assuming Obama wins the election, we can already see one clear explanatory narrative emerging among the pundits - the McCain campaign pandered to the racism and anti-intellectualism of Americans and lost, because Americans are better than that. David Brooks has been making this argument (most explicitly here) and yesterday Frank Rich devoted his column to the idea. As Timothy Egan wrote on the op-ed page yesterday, "Republicans have been insinuating for years now that some of the brightest, most productive communities in the United States are fake American" - and it's finally going to bite them in the ass. America is increasingly a multiracial society with a knowledge economy and Republicans have permanently alienated the well-educated, tolerant professionals who make it run.

While criticizing the Republicans' conception of church-going, small-town, implicitly white "Real Americans", these writers clearly have their own favored social group. This is a wonderful wish fulfillment for these pundits: it's payback time for the smart, ostentatiously not-racist professionals that they identify with, against the Republicans who constantly demonize them. But there are two big problems here.

First, if Obama does win it certainly will not prove Rich's claim that
"despite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election." In case Rich has forgotten, one month ago the polls showed a neck-and-neck race, even tho McCain had just chosen a provincial lightweight with no obvious interest in any national policy issues except abortion to be his running mate, and even tho the political climate in the country was already giving Congressional Democrats big leads.

What has changed is not the sudden disappearance of the longstanding American complex of racism, xenophobia, and nationalism that had dragged Obama down for so long, but the explosion of the economic crisis. Joe Klein, writing in early September, also counterpoised the Republican fantasy of the '50s as Golden Age to "a multiracial country whose greatest cultural and economic strength is its diversity". But he lamented that this "vision is not sellable right now to a critical mass of Americans". If Obama wins comfortably, it only proves that in the midst of the worst financial disaster in 80 years, voters' fear of the Other can be overcome by their fear for their livelihoods.

The real test will come when the Republicans resume their mobilization-thru-bigotry tactics during the Obama presidency, especially if Obama's attempts to revive the economy do not immediately succeed. (And the crisis is now threatening to get so out of control that the chances of quick success are very low.) We on the left are not only going to have to fight Obama's centrist policies, we're also going to have to fight his instincts to move even further to the right in the face of Republican attacks. It would be nice if the American tradition of racism/xenophobia/nationalism really were so weak that we didn't have to worry about it. But four years ago that tradition combined with homophobia to return George Bush to the White House. Even tho the political mood is much different now, the underlying ideologies of the country haven't changed. We can't lose site of the need to keep up the culture war against these supremacist ideologies just because a black man wins the presidency.

Second, the know-nothing Republicans and their urbane critics have set up a false dichotomy between Real Americans and Smart Tolerant Professionals. I certainly agree that there's nothing wrong with people who live in cities and eat ethnic foods, and there is something wrong with the parochialism that Republicans celebrate. But both sides are ignoring a key issue here: the resentment of Smart Tolerant Professionals is not based solely, or even primarily, on their tendency to eat arugula. There is a strong and legitimate, if inchoate, class basis for this resentment.

A large majority of these professionals come from privilege and leveraged that privilege to gain access to the country's handful of elite universities. This education gave them the status and connections they needed to get one of the small number of interesting, empowering jobs in the economy. Occupying one of these jobs, they are elevated far above the working majority of the population - they are glorified by the culture, they can buy whatever they want, and in the workplace itself they hold direct and dictatorial power over their subordinates. And then they look down on those they dominate culturally and institutionally, branding them intolerant, unsophisticated, and even stupid (a recurring word in Rich and Egan's columns).

Republican demonology has twisted the class anger of the victims of this process into support for reactionary policies. But the success they've had in this project has been guaranteed by the Democrats' decision to turn their backs on the working majority. Clinton made populist gestures, but the financiers, lawyers, and technocrats ran the show. Gore and Kerry maintained the substance of Clinton's administration without his ability to hide it behind a show of populism. Obama, perhaps less clumsy than Gore and Kerry, nevertheless has not changed the formula. The historical conjuncture will probably allow Obama to win the election, but like the Clinton years it will be an empty victory if he doesn't restore the Democrats to their working-class base. All the evidence suggests that he has no desire to do so, which means that only a powerful popular show of force can push him in that direction.

No comments: