Friday, February 19, 2010

Pundit Is Ah-scared

George F. Will sez:

America, its luck exhausted, at last has a president from the academic culture, that grating blend of knowingness and unrealism.

While I'll agree that academic culture sucks, George Fwill is hardly the person to point fingers at Elites. Academics do indeed produce dreamy impracticalities, often using the near-slave labor of grad students. But at least academics usually know their subjects; most have at least some ammo where it counts: in their noggins. Is this so much worse than pompous douchebag pundits who produce utter crap, using the near-slave labor of research assistants; such pundits who pretend to be so well-read, but who in real life have absolutely no ammo except that provided by a gopher who knows how to plunder a Bartlett's? The Preznit's an academic who knows some things; Pundit-weasel hybrid is a fake know-it-all who knows nothing. I know who I prefer.

But the reaction against this must somewhat please him. That reaction is populism, a celebration of intellectual ordinariness.

Uh, no. Populism is resentment, often righteous, of Elites, economic, political, and cultural, more or less in that order, who are perceived as thieving, corrupt, or otherwise unworthy. That populism can be anti-intellectual doesn't mean that it inherently is anti-intellectual; perhaps in a genuine meritocracy it would be, but then the fact that America is flagrantly not a meritocracy is one of the major inspirations of populism.

This is not a stance that will strengthen the Republican Party, which recently has become ruinously weak among highly educated whites. Besides, full-throated populism has not won a national election in 178 years, since Andrew Jackson was reelected in 1832.

After William Jennings Bryan's defeat in 1908, his third as the Democrats' presidential nominee, this prototypical populist said he felt like the man who, thrown out of a bar for a third time, dusted himself off and said, "I'm beginning to think those fellows don't want me in there."

That's not quite fair: Bryan would have won in 1896 had Mark Hanna not bought, with Robber Baron money, the election for McKinley. Theodore Roosevelt would have won in 1912 had the Robber Barons not used Taft as a spoiler. It's not that populism isn't popular enough to succeed, it's that populism is so scary to the Rulers of the country that they will use any means to see it fail.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter -- peanut farmer; carried his own suitcase, imagine that -- somewhat tapped America's durable but shallow reservoir of populism. By 1980, ordinariness in high office had lost its allure.

Who won in 1980? Oh yeah; Ronald Reagan, the least intellectual president between Harding and George W. Bush. Presumably, Will thinks Reagan rises above ordinary because the president was coached by a certain pundit...

In 1968, George Wallace, promising to toss the briefcases of pointy-headed intellectuals into the Potomac, won 46 electoral votes with 13.5 percent of the popular vote. He had the populist's trifecta -- a vivid personality, a regional base and a burning issue. Actually, he had three such issues -- backlash against the civil rights revolution, social disintegration (urban riots, rising crime) and resentment of the progressive projects of Great Society social engineers (e.g., forced busing of other people's children).

Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess. Populism does not wax in tranquil times; it is a cathartic response to serious problems. But it always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.

Hmm, and who completely stole Wallace's thunder, and to great success? Will doesn't say, because it would fuck-up his thesis. Nixon fanned the flames of the worst kind of populism (racial resentment), but also the good kind, albeit hypocritically.

Typically, liberals get mad at me for bashing academics-in-government, a.k.a. technocrats. I've been called Spiro Agnew. But millions of Indochinese owe their incineration to the best and brightest academic experts like McNamara and McGenghis Bundy. Yes, that was then. Now, millions of Americans owe their joblessness or job-degradedness to pointy-headed experts like Larry Summers and Brad DeLong. And of course many Muslims owe their misery and/or deaths to Neocon and Liberal Hawk Perfessers. Nixon exploited righteous anger at these types, then put Dr. Kissinger from Harvard in charge, promptly guaranteeing the incineration of moar Indochinese not to mention the torture and murder of Chileans, Timorese, Cypriots, Argentines, Angolans, etc. etc.