The Breakfast Table

Was Gore’s Populism Useless?


All arguments are really disagreements about epistemology. You’re drawn to the big questions but think it is a waste of time to watch the man who I suspect was Montana Gov. Marc Racicot give banal answers in a TV interview. But that’s why I left the University of Chicago and went into journalism. If you don’t get involved in the nitty-gritty of events like this Florida fight, then your judgments about the big issues are just abstractions on stilts. I am absolutely certain that you can get into more intelligent discussions about contemporary life with the first 300 names on the Slate contributor list  than with the combined faculties of Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Chicago.

For example, whenever I go on campus somewhere, I find myself in a discussion about the widening gap between rich and poor and the alleged building anger in the working classes about this. When I began my book, I even envisioned a final chapter called “Revolt Against the Bobos” about the coming class war against all these affluent pukes with their Feng Shui gardens.

But when I did the reporting, I found very little class resentment at least as typically understood. Instead of finding a country divided into classes, with the lower ones resenting the upper ones, I found a country segmented into cliques, each of which feels superior to all the others. One of the great areas of class conflict should be the Rocky wilderness areas. There you have Microsoftie-type mountain climbers with North Face parkas and SUVs as well as working-class hunters in pickup trucks. Each side wants to use the land for different and opposite things, and each side feels morally and socially superior to the other. The working-class hunters look at the stock option naturalists as absurd granola munchers.

My favorite poll from the election season was in Time magazine. They discovered that 19 percent of Americans believe they are in the top 1 percent of income, and a further 20 percent EXPECT to be soon. This is truly the land of self-esteem. We all think we’re above average. And that scrambles all incipient class-consciousness.

You ask how long the Republicans can go without ramping up the culture war. Your implication, in this and your previous entry, is that Republicans only managed to get Reagan Democrat working-class votes with conservative cultural appeals and that without those appeals they will revert to the Democratic Party out of class interest.

In fact, reality is much messier. In this past election, Bush used almost no culture war rhetoric, and Gore explicitly appealed to the white working class on class war grounds. What happened? Bush did very well among the white working class, and Gore did badly. Bush carried white voters with income under $75,000 by 13 points. (Dole lost those voters.) Bush carried noncollege-educated whites by 17 points. (Dole lost those voters.)

Does that mean Gore’s class populism was useless? No. Gore won among people with postgraduate education by whopping percentages (among women with advanced degrees by 59-37, for example). Populist class rhetoric works well with people with law degrees and doctorates. It helps them assuage their guilt over the way the information age is boosting their incomes. They’re the only ones who respond to class warfare appeals. By the way, I don’t think anybody’s going to be reading “The Breakfast Table” today. Surfers’ eyes will be drawn to the humble mea culpas as all the Slateniks bow down to the superior wisdom of Judge N. Sanders Sauls.

All the best,