First, let me welcome readers of Samantha Burns. For those who don't know, she's a Canadian libertarian who supprts the war and hates PETA, only one of which I agree with her on. If nothing else, it might help my pitiful Technorati numbers.
So I'm reading a book about the election of 1800, and it is called, fittingly enough, Adams vs. Jefferson. One of the things that strikes me is the way in which America keeps revisiting the basic issue that has never been fully resolved- are we an elitist society, or an egalitarian society?
In the 1790s, the issue played out as one of democracy vs. republicanism- what level of direct involvement for the people? To a Federalist, the commoners were uneducated and passionate. To a Republican (i.e. Jeffersonian), the Federalists were bent on installing themselves in a quasi-monarchy to rule over their (perceived) inferiors.
It's come up time and again in different forms- industrialists vs. labor, "eggheads" vs. practical thinkers. Underlying all this is a tone of "they think they know what's best for us/themselves." What never changes is that there will always be some form of populism, and some form of elitism. We are in the midst of one such phase right now- what Pat Buchanan called the culture wars. In New York and Los Angeles, rich, educated elites are trying to alter radically the way we live! Or conversely, those people in Kansas and Oklahoma are fighting the future, trying to impose a backward, mythological worldview on us!
It's a false dichotomy, of course, because both sides are right. Each side does want to impose its worldview on the other, because each side thinks it's right. That's why we stand for election, that's why seek to govern- because each candidate, in his/her heart of hearts, thinks that his/her way is the correct way.
What gets really interesting in this particularly bizarre political climate, is that Bush stands with the populists, despite his status as scion of a major political family. Even though Jefferson would have denounced him as an undeserving, aristocratic, puppet of the wealthy and connected, the American people generally associate him as one of their own. In the 2004 election, a pollster asked people to name the consumer brands they associated with the candidates. Kerry was associated by both his supporters and detractors with Starbucks, Heineken, and BMW- upscale, hip brands (or snobby, self-important brands if you didn't like him). Bush, on the other hand, was assoicated with Dunkin' Donuts, Bud Light, and Ford- brands with solid, Average Joe qualities.
Which gets me back to the central question- do we want an Average Joe, or the best and brighest? We go back and forth between the two, and the goalposts are always moving. When Thomas Frank asked What's The Matter With Kansas? he really missed the point- Kansas has always been a populist state. What constitutes populism changes- once it was free land and labor movements, now it's being pro-gun and anti-abortion.
It will be something else fifty years from now, but it will still be with us.