The Elitism Thing

Wednesday, 28 May 2008 06:57 By Tom Sullivan, Truthout | name.

The Elitism Thing

    When character attacks make us uncomfortable and defensive, maybe we should pay more attention and not dismiss them immediately as unfair or overblown. Like Republicans being obsessed with money. I can often identify an acquaintance as a Republican by how quickly money dominates the conversation. With the activist left, it is how quickly the topic of voter ignorance arises.

    Okay, let's deal with the liberal elitism thing.

    In a speech Friday night, Democracy Now's Amy Goodman spoke to a crowd of a couple hundred about the importance of independent media in providing citizens with accurate information for making decisions about their world. Good stuff. Before and after, attendees traded news items and opportunities for activism.

    A very Pacifica Radio crowd. Educated. Informed. Activist.

    Surprisingly, although many left-of-center friends are musicians or artists - creative, right-brain people - when it comes to politics, they rely almost exclusively on their left brain. (Maybe that's not so surprising.) During the mingling at these events, often there is a kind of one-upmanship that goes on. Like Capitol Hill staffers measuring peers by their boss' clout, some size up each another's place in the activist universe by the amount of information they command. Who has seen the latest film, read the latest book, attended the last conference, etc.?

    Inevitably, as usually happens, some complain about how hopelessly ignorant Americans are, exhibiting little awareness of the incongruity of thinking people are stupid and expecting them to vote with you. The undercurrent of frustration is palpable - like Marian the librarian complaining about the unintelligencia of River City for ignoring all her counsel and advice, even though she can quote "Balzac and Shakespeare and all them other high-falutin' Greeks." Frustrated activists armed to the teeth with data assume stupidity is the reason more Americans don't vote with them.

    Are we uncomfortable and defensive yet?

    When conservatives throw the elitism charge against the liberal wall and it sometimes sticks, that's why. Saying conservatives do it too is a schoolyard excuse.

    Goodman does yeoman's work and a great service. Yet it is striking what dogma it is for many in such audiences that "the matter with Kansas" - and the reason for conservative dominance across America's middle - is that the rubes are rubes and uninformed, that what's needed to turn around America is a movement of independent, non-corporate media to distribute more and better information.

    Perhaps. And perhaps Parisians will understand you, too, if you just speak English at them louder.

    Maybe the problem isn't simply the media. Maybe voters aren't hearing us because we haven't troubled ourselves to speak to them in language they understand.

    Being the GOTV coordinator for our conservative district in 2006 imparted a real perceptual shift. I had meetings in isolated towns with people as informed and concerned as any in our largest, most liberal city. At the mall, on the street, at flea markets, I noticed people outside my regular circle who I might previously have ignored. These were voters, my voters, neighbors for whom it was not just my civic responsibility to care, it was my job. If as activists we cannot care as much about our neighbors as our data, or about war victims half a world away, we are in the wrong business. And if we do not really care about them, voters know it before we do. People in my rural district are more than perceptive enough to know when people are looking down their noses at them.

    Conservatism is in trouble. But conservative failure is not progressive success. People want something to vote for, not against. More authenticity, for one, not more information. Because they're busy, overworked - like the woman Bush praised at that faux town hall meeting in Omaha, a divorced mother of three with a mentally impaired son and three jobs, with whom the dullard joked, "Get any sleep?"

    Such voters are not impressed with our wonky take on what is wrong in Washington. They already know. They may not grasp all the details. (That's what they hire representatives for.) They may not want to face it (or are too busy to), but deep down they know. They are looking for people they can trust to fix it. But in general, we have not bothered to persuade voters in language they understand that that is us. We may be too busy trying to impress them - as we sometimes do with each other - with our command of facts, facts that don't improve their lives. We may be too busy telling them what is wrong with the other guys, and too unpracticed at communicating what is right with us and that we care about them.

    That's not their problem. It's ours. Elections are about trust. Trust isn't simply rational, something you can establish with more and better data. Building trust is also gut-level, an "I wouldn't trust anybody my dog doesn't like" kind of thing. It requires balancing the left-brain approach with a bit more of the empathic right, something liberals and progressives should exercise more in their politics. At least, if we are as smart as we think we are.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 May 2008 07:55