Some time ago in a comment I made on the Bidinotto Blog, I noted that I would rather spend an evening in discussion with Sarah Palin than with Barack Obama. Well, perhaps that comment planted a seed of thought in Robert Bidinotto, who has made some interesting and useful observations on how elitists gravitate to Obama, while those who respect the fact that others want to and should be allowed to manage their own lives are drawn to Palin. He notes that the very irritating (for me) tendency of elitists to elevate style above substance and principle plays a strong role in their disdain for Sarah. Indeed, in part because of Palin, many so-called libertarians and some conservatives are actually going to vote for Obama! Elitists are not always found amid the socialist spectrum.
This quote is very long, but it is nonetheless less than half of Robert's post of 30 October and I do want people to focus on this astute observation.
Sarah Palin (and Joe the Plumber) have indeed become Rorschach symbols for conservatives and libertarians, but also for the wider culture. Whether one views them favorably and sympathetically -- or whether one despises and repudiates them -- speaks volumes about one's personal self-image and one's sense of place within American society and culture.
What Sarah and Joe symbolically represent and personify are the millions of inhabitants of what intellectual and cultural elites arrogantly dismiss as "Flyover America": the "non-intellectual," pop-cultural American heartland that lies between its two culturally "sophisticated" coasts. They represent plain, simple, unpretentious, hard-working, self-supporting individuals whose concerns focus mostly on the concrete matters of daily living.
By contrast, the elites base their personal self-images on how smart, well-educated, well-connected, and culturally sophisticated they are. Their social "comfort zones" center around associations with others who occupy the same educational levels, cultural classes, and social strata.
This division is not primarily economic: There are plenty of wealthy people in Middle America. But most of those are self-made successes -- people who built small businesses or struggled to support themselves through school. But they still retain an emotional connection to their social and cultural roots: to their old neighborhoods and families, and especially to the values that shaped them as they grew up. By contrast, many of the financially successful among the elites had the privilege of attending the finest schools, and/or came from upper-middle-class families, and/or found some other portal of access to "sophisticated" circles.
Now, observe the pedigrees, educational backgrounds, social circles, cultural preferences, and zip codes of those conservatives and libertarians who are expressing their loathing of Sarah Palin and/or their admiration for Barack Obama. Using the same criteria, contrast them with those who like Sarah and despise Obama.
It is certainly true that "progressive" John McCain has sunk too often to a populist assault against the financially successful. But populism shouldn't be confused with a legitimate sympathy for, or identification with, the millions of working Americans who are being targeted for regulations and financial exploitation by politically connected elites. Just consider, for example, who are the beneficiaries of the massive governmental financial bailouts, and who are being forced to pick up the tab. What right-wing elitists are repudiating as "populism" becomes much more transparent when they attack not McCain, but Sarah Palin or Joe the Plumber -- and especially in the kind of insults they use to demean the latters' intelligence and mock their cultural values and preferences.
I'm generalizing, of course; there are notable exceptions among all these groups; but I think the exceptions prove the rule. And the rule can be summarized by means of a simple question:
Would you rather spend an evening with Sarah Palin or Barack Obama?
That question appears to be a huge, if tacit, factor in the polarization taking place in this election -- a factor competing with any philosophical principle or other calculation among the electorate in deciding whom to support. I certainly believe it explains the dispute on the right between supporting McCain or Obama.
Thank you Robert!