The Blog

What's The Matter
With Liberals?

A dash of Harvard disease.

12:00 AM, Apr 15, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IN THE SUMMER OF 2004, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas became the left's "it" book of the moment. Lefty luminaries such as Jeanine Garofalo, Molly Ivins, and tireless class warfarist Barbara Ehrenreich crowded the book's back flap to offer eager blurbs.

In a more perfect world, What's the Matter With Kansas would be long forgotten. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world, and Frank's opus has reclaimed a modicum of prominence thanks to Barack Obama's infamous San Francisco declaration regarding the backward bitterness that plagues rural Pennsylvanians:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them . . . It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Several commentators have suggested that Obama's moment of sloppy candor repeats the thesis of What's the Matter With Kansas, and thus the book has a new lease on relevance. In truth, as execrable as it was, Frank's book offered a much more tightly argued position than the one offered by the supposedly brilliant senator who has deigned to lead the American people.

Frank, a native Kansan, insisted that many poor Kansans vote against their economic interests because they're unreasonably preoccupied with social issues. The key additional ingredient to his argument was that conservative politicians only use social issues to cynically manipulate churchgoing rubes, and really have no interest in achieving any results on matters like abortion. Frank particularly stretched to make the latter point, at one point even stating (without any evidence of course) that Sam Brownback was once pro-choice.

Although hardly identical, Obama's and Frank's sentiments do share critical commonalities. Both evidence an unbecoming condescension to the American people. And both share modern liberalism's assumption that Americans are a bunch of dullards. Perhaps no other trait has so thoroughly harmed the left at the ballot box.

Anyone who has ever walked by Harvard Yard has heard the kind of condescending comments that Obama offered in San Francisco. Heck, anyone who has listened to a Michelle Obama speech has heard the same kind of contempt for the American people expressed in unequivocal terms.

If you want to find this kind of smug superiority on the left, you don't have to look very hard. If you're of a mind to do some field research, I recommend you tune into Bill Maher's show on HBO next Friday night. I predict you won't have to wait more than ten minutes before Maher and his panel of Hollywood philosophes agree on what a stupid and ignorant place America is.

This condescension also reveals itself in subtler forms. About the time that What's The Matter With Kansas came out, the most popular movie in America was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. You may remember a fair amount of controversy surrounded that film, particularly over the issue of whether or not it was anti-Semitic. At the heart of the protests emanating from Frank Rich and the Anti-Defamation League was the claim that the film would damage the relationship between Christians and Jews. The tacit assumption supporting such critiques was that the American people were one provocative film away from turning into a bunch of saber wielding Cossacks ready to trundle off to Manhattan to reprise a pogrom.

The left also governs assuming that the imbecilic John Q. Public needs the firm hand of government to protect him from himself. In Massachusetts last week, Barack Obama's role model, Deval Patrick, finally scored a modest legislative victory. Make that a very modest victory. The Patrick administration shepherded into law a bill that requires parents to keep their children in car seats until they turn 8 years old or sprout to 4'9". Those who love the nanny state are predictably gushing over this new law that will dictate to parents how they should watch over their children. Others will find something inherently offensive in the government taking such a measure, one that assumes parents aren't to be trusted with their children's welfare.

LAST WEEK IN HIS New York Times column, our own Bill Kristol predicted that in a close race, Obama's "dash of Harvard disease" could be the difference. Loath as I am to salute my boss for showing such eerie prescience, it seems only fitting to do so now. Beyond his fine predictive skills, in mentioning the "dash of Harvard disease," the boss highlighted a profound fissure between 21st century Republicans and Democrats.