Obama and American anti-elitism


Anti-elitism is ingrained in us, but we shouldn’t misuse that.

Gig Harbor, Wash.

“Elitist.” What more powerful epithet can one politician fling at another?

To suggest, in the US, that your opponent is more aristocrat than common man, that he’s “out of touch” and “condescending” to the opinion and view of Main Street, is almost as radioactive a charge as “traitor” or “terrorist.”

Which is why the elitist tag—flung successfully by Republicans against Al Gore in 2000 (recall his “condescending” sigh in the debate) and John Kerry in ’04 (“too French”)—is now flung at Barack Obama.

Will it stick? Because this anti-elitist bias is lodged in our foundational DNA, it could. It’s DNA our ancestors bottled themselves when, arriving on these shores from the Old World, they threw off any oppressive system—divine right of kings, the class system, inherited titles—that granted automatic favor to one citizen over another.

My own family shares this DNA. When my great-grandfather, a Welshman who reestablished himself in Ohio as a farmer, returned to visit “the old country,” he met an Englishman on horseback. The Englishman, symbol of his old oppressor, demanded he “give way,” but he stood his ground: “I’m an American now! I give way to no man.”

How ironic, then, that it was a French aristocrat—Alexis de Tocqueville—who most penetratingly captured our core egalitarianism. Struck by the “general equality of condition” he found here, he wrote in 1832: “[T]he more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived.” To elaborate on an early motto, “Don’t even think of treading on me.”

And yet, while this anti-elitism arms the citizen to hold his ground and imbues him with a stake in the larger democratic enterprise, there are perils in the misuse of the elitist tag. Three come to mind:

Culture war decoy. Flinging the elitism label into an election is usually an attempt to change the subject by stoking the culture war. Karl Rove, Republican master strategist, portrayed Senator Obama as “coolly arrogant,” and “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.” He was diverting attention from the groundswell of excitement for the new Democratic nominee and the prospect of a Republican rout in November, also from the fact that his own party has managed “the club” for the past eight years. What more potent decoy than the elitist tag?

Far from privileged, Obama’s story is the Horatio Alger story—modest beginnings, absent father, hard work, success via academic performance. Contrast that with John McCain’s story: son and grandson of admirals, married an heiress, etc. But this emphasis is decoy, as is the use of “hockey mom” in reference to Sarah Palin.

Citizens, beware. Breath expended on elitists and hockey moms is breath not devoted to the momentous issues crushing our national agenda: Iraq, energy independence, global warming, infrastructure repair, loose nukes, healthcare reform—and now, swamping everything else, the collapse of Wall Street.

Racial bias? Along with “elitist,” Obama has been labeled “uppity,” “aloof,” “not American enough”—labels that “otherize” him, as columnist Nicholas Kristof terms it. Yet, when asked why they characterize Obama that way, respondents claim, “It’s not a race thing.” But, isn’t it?

Conscientious citizens can be proud that America has taken a giant step toward racial equality: from lynchings to running for president in about one generation. Yet 5 percent of white Americans admit that they would not vote for a black candidate. That’s millions of voters. Christians with this mindset, in this nation professing to be Christian, must ponder: Are all God’s children equal or not?

Anti-intellectualism. Comedian Jon Stewart captures the anti-intellectualism of this election’s elitist-bashing when he quips, “Not only do I want an elite president, I want someone who’s embarrassingly superior to me, somebody who speaks 16 languages and sleeps two hours a night.” Asking “Doesn’t ‘elite’ mean ‘good’?” Stewart points to our disdain for academic excellence. This isn’t new. When Tocqueville wrote that “Democratic communities hold erudition very cheap and care but little for what occurred at Rome and Athens,” he located early our weak point.

The fate of Rome and Athens can instruct us. To reverse our decline, to compete in an increasingly crowded global marketplace, we must reverse our anti-elitist disdain for learning and embrace it, big time. We must also alter our elitist approach to the world—the financial crisis now going global is American-made—and cooperate more. Doing so, America may rise again—a better, wiser nation.

Writer-playwright Carla Seaquist is completing a book of essays titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, and the American Character.”