A little respect

There's an interesting subtext to some of the recent developments in the presidential election: the centrality of respect.


I've long thought that one of the key forces in global politics (and human relations more generally) is respect. When people don't feel respected, it can be a powerful motivator, urging people to take actions that may even be against their self interest. A lack of respect (or dignity, or sovereignty, or justice, which are all connected to it) is the fuel that sustains many violent conflicts around the world, be they focused on tribal, ethnic, or religious differences. It's also a key ingredient of nationalism.


This dynamic has long been at play in American politics. For instance, take this quote from a recent Brooks column:


"Many liberals claim to love working-class families, but the moment they glimpse a hunter with an uneven college record, they hop on chairs and call for disinfectant."


The message is clear: liberals don't respect you. I think Krugman explains it in a recent column as well. He doesn't call it respect, he calls it "resentment" -- but it's essentially the same thing:


"What struck me as I watched the convention speeches, however, is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception — generally based on no evidence whatsoever — that Democrats look down their noses at regular people.


Thus Mr. Giuliani asserted that Wasilla, Alaska, isn’t “flashy enough” for Mr. Obama, who never said any such thing. And Ms. Palin asserted that Democrats “look down” on small-town mayors — again, without any evidence.


What the G.O.P. is selling, in other words, is the pure politics of resentment; you’re supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it’s better than you."


I think there's something essential in this point. Even as the Republicans cater to the demands of the upper .5% of earners in the US (George Bush called them "his base") their reputation as being sympathetic to "small town values" delivers the loyalty of many voters who at first glance one would expect to reject the policies preferred by the affluent.


Thomas Frank covered this ably in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas:


"Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline... Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today's Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they're protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there's a good chance they'll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower."


Obama is an interesting hybrid of elite (Harvard J.D., University of Chicago law professor) and grassroots (mixed-race background, single mom, community organizer) but he has been somewhat successfully tagged with the same "they think they're better than you" label that stuck to Kerry and Gore. Clinton was deftly able to skirt it because of his larger than life persona.


With Obama, though, there's the additional factor of race, which also has factored significantly in the so-called culture wars. There's also the issue of class, as the Democrats have demonstrated with their endless harping about McCain's houses and cars. But fundamentally, the assertion that Obama is an elite, and that elites are bad, is resonating.


Brooks himself covered this in a recent column critical of Palin:


"There was a time when conservatives did not argue about this. Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against radical egalitarianism and the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said.


But, especially in America, there has always been a separate, populist, strain. For those in this school, book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected. The city is corrupting and the universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools.


The elitists favor sophistication, but the common-sense folk favor simplicity. The elitists favor deliberation, but the populists favor instinct.


This populist tendency produced the term-limits movement based on the belief that time in government destroys character but contact with grass-roots America gives one grounding in real life. And now it has produced Sarah Palin."


I appreciate the power of populism, and I welcome the entrance of "real folks" like John Tester into the Democratic party -- maybe it will help to blunt this stereotype of liberals-as-snobs. But it does seem short sighted to rule out people for public office because they fit the profile of an elite. Wouldn't pretty much anyone accepted into an Ivy League school go? And my experience at Harvard (grad school though it was) revealed an incredible diversity of people, from hard-core conservative home schooled Republicans to radical lefty peace activists who still had nostalgia for the tenets of Communism.


It gets back to my belief that we need to work to build a new civil society, with respect for everyone as its core tenet. You don't have to agree with someone to respect them. I am not a Christian, but I respect Christians immensely. Politeness serves an essential human purpose: to communicate respect.


I'm thinking more and more about this these days.

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