Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I now have reason to read the Wall Street Journal editorial page for reasons other than sharpening my debate skills. That bastion of elite wingnuttiness has brought aboard Tom Frank, one of the most perceptive analysts of the bipartisan worship of the ostensibly free market. While I don't always agree with Frank (for example, I think he misunderestimated the conservatism of well-off values voters and overestimated the possibility of liberalism in Kansas), he is one of the smartest writers and most perceptive cultural critics of our time. For leftists who believe that a little hip hop or a few piercings put them on the vanguard of revolutionary change, his collection of Baffler essays, Commodify Your Dissent, serves up a series of witty, learned rebukes. For those sixties romantics who get dewy-eyed at their recollections of Woodstock, his Conquest of Cool, traces the short, not-so-strange trip that brought us hippie capitalism.

Frank's first WSJ column skewers those who associate liberalism and leftism with elitism. Denunciations of elites are deeply rooted in American history but were perfected in the populist rantings of George Wallace and Spiro Agnew ("nattering nabobs of negativism.") Anti-elitism found its most recent incarnation in the image of George W. as a man that every American would like to join for a beer and the counterimage of John--or should I say Jean--Kerry, the Francophile windsurfer. Here is Frank on the phenomenon:

It is by this familiar maneuver that the people who have designed and supported the policies that have brought the class divide back to America – the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one – perfume themselves with the essence of honest toil, like a cologne distilled from the sweat of laid-off workers. Likewise do their retainers in the wider world – the conservative politicians and the pundits who lovingly curate all this phony authenticity – become jes' folks, the most populist fellows of them all.

John McCain's visit to Selma, Alabama yesterday, where he touted the virtues of the forgotten America, is but another shallow moment of symbolic solidarity with the people as a prelude to what he hopes will be eight more years of Republican policies that will protect the interests of big multinationals, preserve capital gains tax cuts for the richest sliver of the population, and starve cities and cut government programs in the name of freeing people to do it for themselves. It's time to say no to "aw shucks" populism and call it for what it is, big bucks elitism.