JOHN EDWARDS’ HIDDEN PROBLEM
JOHN EDWARDS has departed the race leaving a surprising number of liberals without a target for covert class prejudices that have so broadly replaced ethnic and gender discrimination among the better educated. Now the righteous are safe to make what is in their mind a decent and diverse choice: between a black and a woman, one a graduate of Harvard Law School, the other of its Yale equivalent.
It’s sort of like the beginning of the Clinton administration which was going to look like America. In fact, 77% of Clinton’s initial cabinet were millionaires, beating out both Reagan and Bush in this category. In DC, the Clinton choices barely raised an eyebrow. Clinton’s cabinet may not have looked like America, but it certainly looked like establishment Washington. It required no corruption or conspiracy for the city’s journalists to ignore it; everything was just too normal.
One of the delusions of elite liberals is that that they lack prejudice. To be sure, they treat black, women and gays far better than once was the case. But if you are poor, uneducated, own a gun, weigh a lot, come from the South or mainly read the Bible it is another matter. Class and culture have replaced the genetic as acceptable targets.
The 28% of the American adult population with college degrees defines the country’s values, its policies, its laws, what is stylish and how you get to the top, including the White House. And what it has defined has exacted no small price from the remaining 72%. For example, just in the past eight years, the following have gotten significantly worse:
Number of manufacturing jobs
Number of new private jobs
Percent of workers with company based health insurance
Consumer credit debt
Number of housing foreclosures
Cost of heating oil & gas
Number without health insurance
Wages in manufacturing
Income gap between rich and poor
Wealth of the bottom 40% of Americans
Number of older families with pensions
Number of workers covered by defined benefit pensions
Use of soup kitchens
Yet when John Edwards tried to build a campaign around these issues he was subjected not only to the opposition of the establishment and its media but a notable tone of ridicule whose subtext was: why would anyone want to bother with such things? Especially a guy as rich as Edwards?
And when he pulled out of the race, Edwards was treated to more of the same, especially from such faux hip websites as Gawker, Radar and Fark:
Radar: The pretty-boy presidential candidate scored just 14 percent of the vote in yesterday’s Florida primaries. . .
Fark: John Edwards announces he will drop out of race today to spend more time with his hair.
Gawker: John Edwards will end his 49th run for president Wednesday after failing to capitalize on his angry hobo-under-the-bridge message.
These sites, like much of elite America, are led by spoiled offspring of generations who had to struggle with just the sort of issues Edwards was trying to raise, but from which they now consider themselves immune by their education, status and cleverness.
It didn’t used to be like this. I have sometimes tried to explain to people, usually unsuccessfully, that we’ve always had born-again Christians; we just used to call them New Deal Democrats. And those construction workers, easy foil of the New Yorker cartoonists, were once part of a Democratic electorate before they were lured away by the likes of Ronald Reagan.
For many years, as the Democratic establishment has become wealthier, the traditional Democratic base has been steadily pushed away as too dumb, too prejudiced, or otherwise too unworthy of the party. It wasn’t that abortion, gays and family values were intrinsically so important. But if your campaign contributors won’t let you talk or do anything about pensions, healthcare, outsourcing or usurious interest rates, the door opened wide for the rightwing hypocrites.
Class has always been the forbidden fruit of American political debate. A civil rights activist, Julius Hobson, with whom I worked once put it this way:
“The struggle isn’t whether you like a nigger or a nigger likes a cracker or whitey is a pig or any of that stuff. I’ve called people whitey and pig and the FBI never said a word. All I have to do is put on a dashiki, get a wig, go out there on Fourteenth Street, and yell, ‘Whitey is a pig and I’m going to take care of him’ — the FBI will stand there and laugh at me. But the moment I start to discuss the way goods and services are distributed and I start talking about the nature of the political system and show that it’s a corollary of the economic system, that’s when the FBI comes in for harassment.”
And the Washington DC of today proves Hobson’s point: a black city run by black politicians that is one of the most class-divided places you’ll find in America but about which hardly anyone ever talks.
So along comes a wealthy southern white male lawyer and tries to change things back to the way Democrats used to do it. And what happens? Yes, those with power move to keep him in the background. Yes, from the start the establishment media gave him as little coverage as possible.
But more significant was the reaction of average members of the liberal – really post-liberal – establishment. Ridicule and disgust combined with a stunning disinterest in Edwards’ issues that told much about the Democratic Party today.
Not only was this elite bored with Edwards’ program, it made clear that the candidate didn’t look or talk right, was too wealthy to say such things, and, when you come right down to it, wasn’t one of us.
And, oh yes, the most frequent comment of all: he once had a $400 haircut.
Nowhere was it mentioned that Hillary Clinton had had a $1200 makeover during her Senate campaign. But then she wasn’t the issue. She belonged.
Among the characteristics of America’s second robber baron era is the manically narcissistic idea that the market justifies everything. If you’re rich, you’ve said it all. You owe no one anything but they sure owe you a lot.
But if you go back before this contemporary epidemic of economic egomania, you will find in many prosperous corners the notion expressed in Luke: to whom much is given; from whom much is expected.
Edwards was clearly raised on such a principle. He made a great deal of money and in later years chose to pay a kind of ethical interest to those who have not done as well.
To be sure, he is still the son of the mill worker who made good and feels the need for what is, for many, excess footage in his home and excess hairage on his scalp. But that goes with the territory.
And there is nothing hypocritical about wanting to both to have it and to share it. After all Mitt Romney gives ten percent of his wealth back to the Mormon Church and nobody laughs at him.
Edwards’ problem was that he made the smug set of American liberalism extremely uncomfortable. He showed them what they should really be thinking about and what they might do about it. And they didn’t like it. Far better to relax in the self-righteousness of choosing between a Harvard Law School black and a Yale Law School woman.
And so, once again, the Democratic Party drifts further away from what once made it worth bragging about.