Thursday, July 10, 2008

Will the real elitist please stand up?

A quick election '08 moment: One thing to keep an eye on is the curious mobilization of the e-word in US electoral politics. The Republicans have worked hard to disarticulate elitism, understood as an attitude, from elitism as a signifier or social or economic privilege. George W. Bush, a member of perhaps the most powerful and well-connected political family in the nation, is portrayed as the antithesis of elitism because of his folksy, brush-clearing, grammar-mangling style. By contrast, the favorite targets of right-wing charges of elitism are often those with negligible political or economic power: critics in academia, the literary world, and so on. In keeping with the time-tested strategy of branding opponents elitists, Karl Rove recently outlined his preferred campaign strategy for the McCain/Obama election at a meeting of GOP insiders: "Even if you never met him, you know this guy...He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone." It's such a strange invocation, considering the long history of racial exclusion at country clubs, to portray Obama as the insider, and the GOP elite as the outsiders being sneered at. But then again, that explains a lot about the way people like Rove seem to see themselves -- as aggrieved and unappreciated outsiders, no matter how long they've been running the party and how rich and privileged they are.
What causes trouble for Republicans, interestingly, is not when they're busted being elites -- cutting taxes and deals for their wealthy buddies, but when they actual reveal their own insular privileged status, as when, for example, George Bush I reacted with fascination at the sight of a bar code scanner at a checkout counter. Or, more recently, when Phil Gramm claimed that economic concerns were purely a figment of the imagination of a "nation of whiners."

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