The Politics Of Condescension

Gary Hart
CBS/The Early Show
This column was written by Noemie Emery.

Om the afternoon of May 25, 1984, the rising It Candidate of the current electoral season committed an unwitting faux pas at a fundraising event for le tout California that set his high-flying campaign on its heels. As recounted by Jack Germond and Jules Witcover in the book they wrote, Gary Hart and wife Lee converged on a "sumptuous home" in Los Angeles, where, on the patio that overlooked most of the city, Hart tried his hand at some fun.

"The deal is we campaign separately," Hart said. "That's the bad news. The good news for her is she campaigns in California and I campaign in New Jersey." Amid the laughter, Lee broke in to say that while campaigning in California, she got to hold a koala bear. To which her husband observed, "I won't tell you what I got to hold--samples from a toxic dump." At first, Hart denied that he had a problem. "He kind of gave me a look," one of his managers related, "like, 'Come on, Billy, we have bigger things to worry about than that."'

In fact, he didn't. "The joke had a devastating effect in New Jersey," the reporters recounted. "The 'Jersey joke' became the lead story two days running . . . and the press in general leaped on Hart's clumsy explanation that all he was trying to say was that he wished he could spend more time with his wife."

This wasn't the sole reason that Hart lost New Jersey--and the nomination that followed--but his golden boy aura never recovered, given his rapid ascent, his relative novelty, and some discordant notes in his past. "Whenever you could raise questions about Hart's integrity, his levelheadedness, all of that, you had him," the pair quote Bob Beckel, then the main strategist for Hart's rival, Fritz Mondale. "There was a built-in question about . . . his name and his age and all that stuff . . . Then he comes off the wall with a crack like that. Part of it was New Jersey pride, but the other was, 'Why does the guy do it? It doesn't make sense. He wants to be President of the United States."'

With this theme of looking down on the wretched they manfully try to enlighten more or less ingrained in the genes of the party, it was déjà vu all over again when the It Candidate of the current primary season chose yet another Golden State soiree to dump on the residents of a less gilded venue for the pleasure of those in the audience, explaining that 'bitterness' over their squalid condition led them to embrace not toxic wastes in this instance but the false consolations of guns and religion. For some reason, the bitterness that led the members of his own congregation to embrace a man who railed against Jews and Italians and urged the congregation to sing "God Damn America" had gone unexplained at this time.

Whether this will do for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania and in Indiana what Hart's remarks did for him in New Jersey remains unknown, but condescension towards the people by the party that loves them has a lineage that goes well beyond Hart.

In Our Country, Michael Barone traces this strain back to 1956 and the second campaign of Adlai E. Stevenson, who, when told "thinking people" were for him, said, "Yes, but I need to win a majority," and when praised for having educated the voters, said that too many had not passed the course. "Stevenson," Barone says, "was the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class American culture--the prototype of the liberal Democrat who would judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting," and since Stevenson, there have been many such. Hart and Michael Dukakis were brought down by this failing, as was John Kerry, whose 2006 swipe at George W. Bush and those forced into the armed forces brought this response from some servicemen: "Halp us, Jon Carry--We R Stuck HEAR N Irak."

After their unexpected loss in 2004, Democrats were much too impressed by Thomas Frank's treatise What's the Matter With Kansas? which complained that they lost because middle-class voters were too stupid to vote their 'real' interests (which were presumably served by the Democrats), because conservatives wickedly played on their fears. ('Fear' is the Democrats' answer for every vote they don't get.) Whether middle-class interests are better served by liberalism is an open question--they did so much better, after all, under Carter than Reagan, and the Clintons did so much to help them get health care--but condescension remains an unpromising strategy. There is, it appears, not much the matter with Kansas. Obama's mother, he says, did come from Kansas. But the matter with Democrats, and with Obama, seems to be Thomas Frank.
By Noemie Emery
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