Condescension or Tribute? Tribal rituals of left and right.

Condescending To The Folks

by digby

Gabriel Winant at Salon discusses the ways in which both conservatives and liberals condescend to "middle America" by looking at this ad from an Alabama GOP candidate:

It's really difficult to give the Peterson ad an honest viewing and come away thinking that this guy thinks highly of the people whose votes he's after. Besides the arguments being total nonsense, the symbolism is just way too aggressive. Peterson tips his cards when he edges that gun into the frame, as if to say, "Yeah, those idiots will eat this up."

But here's the crucial thing about right-wing condescension and left-wing condescension: As you may notice, they're not symmetrical. Conservatives aren't condescending toward the liberal, urban base the way liberals are toward the conservative, rural base. (OK, yes they are, but it's not necessarily their bread and butter.) In other words, both elitisms are targeted at the same people. Barone accuses liberals of writing off Middle America (itself a rather condescending generalization, but there we are) as an angry mob. Peterson consciously tries to appeal to -- ugh -- Middle America as an angry mob.

I suppose there are examples of Democratic candidates running ads that condescend to "Middle America" (which is assumed to be something other than liberal, natch) but I can't think of any. However, I'll assume for the sake of argument that they exist.

But I think Winant is dead wrong about this ad. It's exactly the kind of thing that works on the GOP Real American constituency, not because its "angry" but because of all the Real American iconography. They could change this ad's copy to be Morning in America and it would work just as well.

We used to talk about this a lot during the Bush presidency, deconstructing his drawl and all the images of him in cowboy costumes. I came to the conclusion that it didn't matter that he was a blatant phony. What mattered was that he cared enough to present himself to his tribal brethren as one of them. His phoniness was a tribute to their culture and customs.

This Alabama candidate is also using tribal language, and some of it's nearly incoherent. (Thugs and criminals are keeping the importance of the Agriculture commissioner position secret so they can steal the money?) But it conveys a macho, authoritarian attitude, which is a mainstay of the conservative appeal and he hits all the important cultural notes, even though most of them have absolutely nothing to do with agriculture commissioner business. But specifics are beside the point. It's about conveying that he's one of them --- against all the other "them's." I doubt very seriously that his potential constituents find this condescending at all. Indeed, I'll bet they very much appreciate this candidate's respect for their shared symbols.

Liberals don't do this as much because they just don't have the well-defined tribal culture (the mythic America of the 50s --- both the 1850s and the 1950s) that the right shares with one another. But Barack Obama came as close as anyone to hitting it. Unlike the right, the Democrats have to be careful because of the persistent Village obsession with the 60s but still, Obama was able to tap into shared identity symbolism and cultural commonality from the slogans to the posters to the music and the gestures. His whole persona was an image that appealed on a subliminal level to his political tribe.

It's fashionable to think that this sort of thing is no longer relevant now that we have a grassroots uprising coming from all directions, alliances are being made across all lines and the world is being made anew and all, but I'll believe it when I see it. I'm guessing these dividing lines aren't really changing much. And since "condescension" has been something half the country has always accused the other half of feeling toward it, I'm guessing that's not going to change either.