Joe Sixpack and the American elite

We live in a peculiarly tangled political culture. How confusing it is, for example, that one of the few articulate defenders of a meritocratic American elite is an unreconstructed Sixties leftist, a former president of the Students for Democratic Society, a Greenpeace board member and a long-time radical political activist. At a Pew Forum discussion in Washington DC this week, it was none other than Todd Gitlin making the case for the American meritocracy. In a debate with Yuval Levin from the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center, Gitlin spoke against Sarah Palin's everywoman economic populism. Here's how Newsweek's Eleanor Clift reported Gitlin's response to Levin's assertion that Obama is a cultural elitist:

Gitlin came back hard, saying we should be embarrassed that we don'tknow more languages, and that there is a difference between being an elite, which Obama is and has earned by virtue of his intellect and accomplishments, and being an elitist, which he is not.

This reignition of the culture wars isn't just entertainment. As Reagan scholar Matthew Dallek wisely reminds us, the balance of American political power since the Sixties has been shaped by successful cultural warriors like George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew:

In the past four decades, one of the most important political narratives has pitted conservative populism against, for lack of a better term, "limousine liberalism." Conservatives have done a brilliant job of overturning the New Deal coalition by portraying themselves as identifying with and fighting on the side of the "regular guy."

But Dallek believes that this so-called Republican "trope" has lost its "political magic" and that even the winkingly familiar Sarah Palin has failed to make the case for herself. It's a "fluid moment", Dallek reports, in which the Democrats are successfully convincing mainstream America that "preparation, judgement and intelligence" are most important political qualities than a candidate's ability to personally identify with the electorate. But as Dallek suggests, a Democratic victory in '08 represents the beginning of a new series of battles in the seemingly never-ending culture wars:

In purely political terms, if Obama wins, he will need to find language and policies that continue to reframe this populist struggle in ways that favor his party. He will need to achieve for Democrats what Wallace, Nixon and Agnew accomplished politically for Republicans four decades ago.

Where to find that language and those policies? Obama might start with Todd Gitlin's idea that there is a fundamental difference between being an elite and an elitist. To value the achievement of elites again, the Democrats must strengthen and evangelize the American meritocracy. Once Matthew Dallek's "Joe Sixpack" believes once again that anyone can become part of the American elite, then Obama's new coalition could last for forty years. If not, then the Pygmalian politics of Sarah Palin will probably sweep to power in 2012.