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the great unwashed

March 24, 2010

[ed. note: I originally wrote this in July and came across it today while looking for another draft blog. not sure why I didn’t post it then. anyway, it’s still fairly relevant, so I updated it a little and here you are.]

so i was reading this newsweek article by rick perlstein, who by and large i generally like (i wrote a paper on one of his books in grad school, even, and found nothing particularly objectionable in it). the article is all about the growing split on the right between elites and the “common” people in the conservative movement, as summed up in the title: “beyond the palin: why the GOP is falling out of love with gun-toting, churchgoing [sic], working-class whites.”

my problem here is that perlstein seems to fall into the same trap that the republican elite have: he conflates class and intelligence. here, it’s the wealthy, upper-class, urban republicans who are the “intellectuals,” while the so-called “heartland” voters are all the sort of people who mindlessly regurgitate limbaugh’s talking points and rally around sarah palin. it’s this same kind of thinking that leads the republican party heads to choose people like palin or “joe the plumber” to be their public face. apparently, in their world, being poor means being so stupid you’ll believe anything anyone tells you; it means being too stupid to realize when you’re being pandered to. there’s a theory, apparently, that to appeal to the working class, you need to look and sound like someone those people would like to have a beer with, regardless of how many houses you own or whether your daddy bought a building at an ivy league university. there’s some validity in this reasoning, as has been amply seen in politicians like reagan and gw bush. but history has also shown that patrician politicians can be popular among–and do good things for–the lower classes (ie, FDR). 

i come from a working class background, and many of the people i’m related to or know from childhood are more conservative than i am (not hard). and though we have our differences of opinion, they are neither bad nor stupid. (granted, sometimes they make bad and/or stupid decisions, but then being a liberal hardly guarantees you make perfect choices, political or otherwise.) my socially conservative mother has always been willing to engage in open political debate with me, and has hardly ever voted on party lines, even though she’s been a republican all her life (once, in high school, i convinced her to vote for the Peace and Freedom candidate). her mother, raised in small town wyoming, is an old-school new deal democrat who loves FDR and is embarrassed by bush and absolutely loathes cheney. being working-class doesn’t make you some knee-jerk reactionary who can’t string together two thoughts or look at anything in a critical fashion. and yet look at the people the Republican party brings out in an attempt to relate to the “common people.” honestly, i’d be pretty offended if the people in charge of the party supposedly representing me thought that buffoonish caricatures would be sufficient to placate me into voting for them. 

so when perlstein (who’s a liberal, btw) says things like, “Another thing that makes some elite conservatives nervous in this recession is the sheer level of unhinged, even violent irrationality at the grassroots,” conflating the grassroots (read: lower class) conservatives with the wingnuts on the fringe, it bothers me. obviously, we should all be concerned with the fact that violent fringe attitudes are getting air time on a major news network and treated as if they’re normal; obviously, this isn’t very responsible journalism and the outbreaks of violence in the past few months highlight this problem. but i think it’s a far stretch to say that the “grassroots” of the conservative party believes these things widely. 

perlstein’s article was short, and we all sacrifice nuance for brevity, so maybe i’m just being over-sensitive here. but it struck a nerve with me, because it seems like more of the same in terms of the culture wars, where the elitist coastal liberals mock the unwashed masses in the flyover states who are too stupid to even realize what a bad deal they’re getting from their own party. how exactly are we supposed to fix the problems in this country if we continue to see only blue and red, and to dismiss everyone on the other side as either pompously wrong-headed or pathetically stupid? 

there’s that old cliche about how everyone’s a democrat until they grow up and have property/wealth/what have you. if we can accept that upper-class liberals vote against their own economic interests because other political issues are more important to them–intellectually, spiritually, culturally–then why can’t we accept that lower-class conservatives do the same thing, and that it doesn’t necessarily make them stupid? nobody is actually a stereotype, we are all made up of a variety of ideas and impulses, some of which are in competition with each other. being lower class doesn’t make you dumb (no matter what you might see COPS); hell, even being a lower class AND a republican doesn’t make you dumb.

in closing, a caveat: perhaps you will read this and think i’m being naive. that’s possible. but don’t take this to mean i have a lot of faith in humanity; i don’t. by and large, people are pretty fucking stupid. i just think it’s ridiculous to assume that everyone in “the republican base” is a nutjob.

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One comment

  1. […] click through and read the whole thing. it’s similar to things i’ve thought/written in the past, except much, much […]



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