Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Populism and Celebrities

Although populism almost always wins, the Republicans have found a way to mock populism via the "celebrity" charge. It is their only recourse to Barack Obama's idea that he wanted to bring the convention to the people by taking it outside to INVESCO field. Why haven't Democrats used it? Because Democrats have been so often (and successfully) painted as elitist (as was the case for Adlai Stevenson and John Kerry), they would be perceived as condescending if they used it. (This is analagous to the fact that Democrats have more leeway to criticize racial minorities, and Republicans have more leeway to critize military commanders).

The celebrity charge is potent. It has turned an intellectual, a law professor into a Paris Hilton. Still an elitist, but also vacuous; a hybrid and seemingly contradictory charge that we have not seen in American politics for a long time.

Nevertheless, Republicans will get a taste of their populism tonight. Our democracy turned mobocracy is not a partisan condition, but a universal reality. Mock the celebrity, and you mock the mob and the screaming groupies. The Obama campaign's appropriate defence should be that the celebrity charge is an attack not only on Obama but his adoring fans.

To sharpen their criticism, Republicans need to get at a very subtle premise underlying much of Obama's support, especially among the youth. It is their generational envy and those who lived through the 60s: the Civil Rights movement, the marches on Washington, MLK's speech at the Lincoln memorial. Obama has tapped into their nostalgia and set himself up as the new incarnation of old icons. (It is not enough that Republicans ask for meat on the speech's bones. Since when did politicians give us anything more than rhetorical bones in their speeches?) If Republicans manage to sever this mythological link - which they are beginning to do with the "celebrity" charge - they may yet break the convention bounce that Obama is likely to get after tonight.

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