Why Can't Obama Do Populist?
Why does President Obama have such a hard time finding and maintaining the Populist voice? The President's enemies -- the Glenn Becks, the Limbaughs, the teabaggers and Town Hollerers -- employ their shrill tones to sometimes devastating effect, eating away at his good will. During the 2008 campaign, there were questions as to whether or not now-President Obama was of the Kerry-Dukakis-Adlai Stevenson school of the Democratic Party, or of the JFK side. These questions seemed to have been answered after Obama won the nomination, and then the Presidency. Ted and Caroline Kennedy's imprimatur came at a critical juncture of his campaign. The Adlai Stevenson school generally doesn't win elections, it has been argued. Stevensonians tend get hammered by the GOP, they do not fight back effectively, and they tend to get separated from their "Reagan Democrat" constituency.
Adlai Stevenson, the "last of the beautiful losers," was of a Progressive, intellectual temperament. His "type" is fundamentally incapable of expressing Populism. When it does, in moments of political exigency, it does so at maximum discomfort. Populism is, to this type, a dirty, low and common affair. The Stevenson School by contrast exudes a certain bloodlessness (blue-bloodedness?), but it is alien to contemporary American politics, more "European" -- or, worse, vaguely French -- than on the ground in Scranton. Thomas Edison was not a Harvard lawyer; the inventor of the Cotton Gin was probably not a Princeton man. Ingenuity, the pioneering spirit and gumption run through the American bloodstream. Stevensonians don't win American elections unless they do some intellectual cross-dressing, engineering brush-clearing photo-ops. That's *American.* Change, in American politics, has always needed a Populist argument, a visceral appeal, in order to happen.
Reagan Democrats -- of the white, working-class, Archie Bunker variety -- have deep resentments towards people who work in "intellectual" professions. They believe more often than not in blood -- as in their white ethnicity -- and sweat, as in of their brow (The Corsair pops a fucking can of Schlitz). In many ways, Reagan Democrats don't see what "intellectuals" do as real work (Hence the supreme irony of "commentator" Pat Buchanan's appeal). It is the work of the mind, invisible, thinky.
And thinky doesn't make for stinky. In other words, if one doesn't need to take a shower after working, then is it really work? they argue, pragmatically. Pragmatic-realism is the state of being in how much of the American middle class raises their families. Idealism, in their Wisdom, is a luxury for the rich, the young and the foolish. This is why Populist anger towards the financial class bailouts is potentially deadly. The "Hah-vid" lawyer, the man -- or woman -- who has never worked with their hands, gotten backache from standing up all day, grit under the fingernails, has a college education and advanced degrees. Those are the enemy.
The bailouts of the financial sector only strengthened the argument of the Reagan Democrats saving the day -- yet again. It is not enough that the Reagan Democrats have to feign a smile when waitressing or doormanning for the overclass, but their taxes must now save the economy from their colossal fuck-ups. That is, if you'll forgive this blogger, unbelievably unfair. Reagan Democrats dislike intellectuals primarily because they themselves are essentially emotional creatures. Emotionally-oriented personality types have trouble understanding intellectually-oriented people and vice-versa. Appeals to the resentments of Reagan Democrats -- and their lower natures -- have always been entertained by cynical politicians. Those appeals, when done right, are quite effective. The "intellectuals" rule the world, make all the money, while the emotionally-based, the salt-of-the-earth, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, have to bail them out.
Reagan Democrats are essentially white working-class voters who are angry that they are not, in many cases, living the lives of their parents. They have fallen behind. They are not living the American Dream that they were told that they -- as white ethnics -- would inherit. Reagan Democrats blame Latinos for stealing their taxes; Reagan Democrats for the crime in their neighborhoods and affirmative action; Reagan Democrats blame "pointy-headed Liberals" -- often code for The Jews -- for enacting policies that are overburdening the white man. And now there's a Black Man in the White House! (One can almost hear Archie Bunker spit up his domestic suds)
Hillary Clinton made a cynical appeal to precisely these voters when she realized -- after South Carolina -- that she was not going to get the black vote. Who had done more for African-Americans than the Clintons, they argued. And it is probably that rejection by African-Americans, upon meeting the real deal, that made it easier for the Clinton's to embrace their inner Bubba. Because nothing spells good-ole-boy like a Yalie lawyer Power couple (Averted Gaze).
Hillary perfected this strategic pitch pretty much after Barack Obama had secured a prohibitive amount of the party delegates. Still, Clinton, before her defeat, revealed a weakness now-President Obama has with those Reagan Democrats. Obama, in the general election, was lucky that his opponent, John McCain, doesn't draw particularly visceral enthusiasm among the Reagan Democrats. There is, to be sure, a racial component to this. But there is also the sheer fact that Obama does not do populism well. He did so in Minnesota on Health Care, but the efforts were taxing, and he reverted back to the high-toned lawyerly-intellectual approach (Obama's natural state).
President Obama needs to get in touch with his Populist side. I know he idolizes his fellow Illinois President Abraham Lincoln, a pre-Stevensonian Stevenson, who always appealed to the higher natures of the American voter. We are, in many ways, a weaker people now than then. Our attention spans are smaller. And while The Great Recession is certainly not the Civil War, there is a palpable sense of decline about the United States. Whole sectors of the economy are shrinking at an astonishing clip. Unemployment is on the rise; mortgage foreclosures are on the rise; tent cities are on the rise. Appeals to intellect are laudable, but they may fall on deaf ears in these dark times. It is easier to appeal to Man's better nature when his stomach is full. For when a Man is hungry he is more tempted by his inner demons -- and those silver-tongued populists who speak in their name -- than by his better Angels.
President Woodrow Wilson, another pre-Stevensonian Stevensonian, found his Populist voice far too late. As he campaigned in a whirlwind tour around the country to bring around American popular opinion to ratifying the League of Nations, he was struck down by Fate. It was only after the incalculable suffering wrought by the Second World War that American came around to the necessary foreign entanglements of the UN and international law, ideas that the now deceased Wilson had championed a generation previous. America learns; American wisdom ultimately prevails, but sometimes it does so late, at great cost. President Obama would do well to keep that lesson of American History in mind in pursuing Health Care.