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Obama, the Chicago guy

Via Michael Froomkin comes this great piece from Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. Anyone doubting that we've made some progress in race relations should read some of these letters written by white Chicagoans during the civil rights era. Read their letters, feel their fear. (And note, please, how often their racism was defended by appeals to "property rights" and "freedom.")

Our history of racism makes it delicious that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. But his nomination is delicious for more reasons than just race. After so many years of ceding the nation's political culture to candidates who feel compelled to identify themselves with rural Texas or Arkansas or some other Southern locale, I'm thrilled that Obama's acknowledged political home base is the city of Chicago. And after so many years of ceding our political culture to the rednecks, it's refreshing that Obama is obviously an intellectual who couldn't bowl his way out of a paper bag. It's about time! Of course, all of this is useless if Obama loses to McCain, but I'm still hopeful that that won't happen.

Now, I shall set forth upon my cultural rant -- apologies in advance:

Start with politics. The free-market and social conservativism that dominates our political discourse needs to be checked. Our long love affair with conservatism has led to the middle class disappearing, our bridges collapsing, our cities drowning, and our civil liberties evaporating. Our military is in Iraq on false pretenses, waging a war of choice, and may now be settling in for the very long-term. These depressing political developments have been aided, if not caused, by a political culture that has privileged the yahoo and the redneck over the erudite, urbane, and intellectual.

What do I mean by that? Consider that for decades, politicians won by ridiculing "effete intellectuals" and more recently, "latte liberals." Reagan the Rancher beat Mondale the Minnesotan. Bush 41 beat Dukakis in part because the latter seemed more urbane, and thus more wimpy -- mostly because of that unfortunate tank helmet, but also because Dukakis looked like the product of civilized Massachusetts. Clinton turned the tables on the Republicans by being more rednecky than both Bush 41 and the witty but non-redneck Bob Dole. That Gore and Kerry both came close to beating the most anti-intellectual president ever suggested that our national infatuation with yahoos continued, but that it might have limits.

Conversely, I challenge you to name a successful national politician who won by casting his opponent as an uneducated redneck. Who mocked his opponent's Ford F150 with the gun rack. Who held up his Starbucks proudly while denouncing his opponent's preference for Diet Coke and fries.

I thought not. Intellectualism hasn't fared too well in American politics of late.

I'm not saying that the right wing doesn't have its share of intellectuals. In fact, the left has long envied the academic output of the partisan right even as they denounce the specific arguments for endless tax cuts as ideological extremism. Despite George W. Bush's appalling lack of curiosity and aggressive anti-intellectualism, the real damage of this presidency has been done by the highly-educated David Addingtons and John Yoos in the administration who use their skills to push pernicious policies: the "unitary executive", the GWOT, signing statements, deregulation and tax cuts. These days, everyone across the political spectrum wants their own Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.

What I'm saying is that as we've been seduced by the politics of the right wing, we've also been seduced by the culture of the redneck. I don't think this is a coincidence. They often go hand-in-hand. The pejorative term "redneck" conjures up images of people more zealous about the literal truth of the Bible than about their own reason, more attached to their pickup truck than to the health of ANWR, more committed to their hatred for gays than to their appreciation of diversity. These are the cultural markers that right-wing Republicans have been celebrating for decades.

Moreover, these cultural markers are sadly much more visible in rural areas than they are in big cities. This site stereotypes the difference too much, but there's a core of truth to the general claim that liberalism flourishes in big cities and withers in the hinterlands. If you doubt this, look at the map: there aren't red and blue states; there are red rural areas and blue cities. John Kerry won every city in the country with more than 500,000 people.

Republican campaign success over the past twenty years has hewed more or less loosely to the formula: praise the the rural and the redneck, villify the educated and and the urban. Thankfully, things are changing. We'll have to see how Barack Obama does in November, but this time around, my money's on the intellectual guy from Chicago. Delicious.

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