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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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A Small Wager

My aunt asked me the other day if I thought American voters were opposed to anybody who was intellectual. As we went along, she told me of something my Iowa-born grandmother would say, "If you're not smart enough to farm, they make you a school teacher."

It's an old theme in our family. My dad, who despite his mother's views became a school teacher, told me that he had supported JFK over Adlai Stevenson in the 1960 Democratic primary because Stevenson couldn't win a general election. The main knock on Stevenson, my dad told me, was that he was "an egghead."

I hesitated in answering my aunt.

Because having "brains" these days is so clearly seen as a good thing, among those who fight to make a living. And the opposite, being a dummy, is so clearly seen as a knock on someone, really, an insult.

But in American politics, populism includes a strong strain of anti-elitism which often flops over into anti-intellectualism. So, in that sense, I agreed with my aunt, the voters tend to reject intellectuals.

Now if you take the Republican upstart in Delaware, she is the opposite of intellectual.

But when I saw Christine O'Donnell's victory address after winning the Republican primary, I thought she was telegenic and convincing, another Sarah Palin. On that one impression, I thought she would win the seat.

But I have since tempered that conviction. American populism - and the TEA Party is the embodiment of its right-wing variant - may have a limit in terms of its anti-intellectualism. Because since winning the primary, O'Donnell has been mainly silent, running, the way a friend put it to me last week, as "a celebrity."

No speeches to voters, no political appearances, no substantive interviews. She apparently does have a busy schedule right now - filming TV ads.

We also have left-wing populism in America, like some dark matter within the atomic structure of our politics. But it is aimed at the rich and the powerful. And it is clearly the weaker of the two forces.

Along that line, my aunt, who is more on top of the news than I am, pointed to Meg Whitman here in California and the matter of her illegal housekeeper.

She found it fitting -- in the sense that you reap what you sow -- that someone who made such a political point of attacking illegal immigrants would be found out to have employed one, and that the issue could well be Whitman's downfall.

While the candidates are greatly different in Delaware and in California, both contests contain strong elements of populism.

But the Delaware contest is an extreme example. O'Donnell is even attacking members of her own party as "elite."

While not making any appearances in Delaware where she is running for office, she does indeed show up at a meeting of conservative activists in Washington to criticize her conservative opponents as the "small elite."

It is, by the way, entirely in keeping with the celebrity theory that she would ignore the voters but court the national activists and in particular their money.

"The small elite don't get it," she told the Values Voters Summit. "They call us wacky. They call us wing-nuts. We call us, 'We the people'."

Her candidacy will demonstrate how strong the force of right-wing populism has become in American politics, and will show the limit of its anti-intellectualism.

On that topic, my aunt, who we always called Tante Gateau which translates Aunt Cake, suggested, a "small wager."

So I bet that O'Donnell would win the general election in Delaware. My aunt bet that she wouldn't.

The stake, I proposed, would be that if I lose, then before Christmas, I would go up and visit her, the remaining family member of her generation, in Santa Cruz.

"Well, I sure hope I win," she said.

I figure I'll go up either way.

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