There was an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Oregonian by political consultant Kari Chisholm, one of many post-election postmortems to appear in the media since Black Tuesday, this one focusing on how the Democratic party should look to candidates from the west. Part of Chisholm’s argument got me thinking:
“Let’s face it: For all of his strengths, average middle-class American families simply couldn’t identify with John Kerry…He always came across as [a] prep-school liberal, part of the brie-and-chablis scene back East. Conversely, George ‘Dubya’ Bush has portrayed a regular-guy image, comfortable with the NASCAR-and-barbecue crowd. While Kerry tried to fake it with L.L. Bean camouflage hunting gear, Bush looked at home in his blue jeans and cowboy boots.”
What interests me is why in a contest between two rich blue-bloods, one seemed a man of the people and one didn’t. The difference, I think, is between our perception of New England and the Northeast versus our perception of Texas. In Texas, it seems, no matter how rich and privileged you are, somehow it’s still possible to maintain—at least to outsiders—this façade of being an average Joe. But I think a better way to explain it is that no amount of money can make a Texan seem culturally sophisticated.
In other words, then, John Kerry suffered against Bush because his home region is a modern, enlightened place, while Bush’s home is still one that takes the rough-and-tumble frontier as its cultural emblem, with intellectualism in effect frowned upon as being uppity. As a result, Kerry going snowboarding, however genuine a passion it may be, rings false, while Bush in cowboy boots and jeans on his ranch is, however phony it may be, rings true.
As Valarie pointed out last night when we were having this same conversation, why is it that so many American voters resist the idea of electing a president who’s smarter and more culturally sophisticated than they are?
The issue of class in America never gets spoken about much any more, especially in comparison to somewhere like England, where it remains a veritable obsession. But clearly it matters a lot here too. In the end, John Kerry seemed to come from a more upper-class background than Bush did, even though that of course is not true. Polling shows that voters lean Democrat on the issues themselves by a comfortable margin, so that means personality loomed large in this election. It didn’t help matters that Kerry was wooden and uncharismatic, but I think there was more that worked against him. For all the importance of Iraq, the deficit, and moralistic crusades and all the other issues, I can’t help but think millions of voters swindled themselves.