Monday, February 25, 2008

Dummies and Eggheads... Why Obama is winning...

Are you puzzled about Barack Obama's popularity? Are you scratching your head, befuddled about his rock star status? Do you find yourself seeing the massive gatherings of supporters and wondering "why, why why?"

This post will explain exactly why Barack Obama is riding a wave of unprecedented (in my lifetime, anyway) political popularity. Maybe not. I could be very wrong.

Why is it happening? Simple. Barack Obama has a message that appeals to most of the voters. How so? Dumb people love him. So do smart folk.

Here's why it's perfect: It appeals to the two most important groups of people in the electorate. Barack Obama is loved by the idiots and the intellectuals--for two very different reasons. The Obama campaign may have a reasonable level of support in the middle of the bell curve, but the outliers represent his rabid fan base.


Dumb people love Barack Obama. The simple version of his message and dominant theme of his campaign appeals to them. Hope and Change. Those are nice, warm, fuzzy concepts and people love them. Those ideas work really well with dumb people who are incapable of considering how one goes from concept to implementation. People who don't understand the difference between the legislative branch and the executive branch of government adore these messages.

They want change because things could and/or should be better. They want hope because it gives them a reason to get up in the morning. The actual dirty work of getting creating change and fulfilling hope, however, is too complicated for them. They don't want to dissect the pros and cons of mortgage freezes. They don't want to spend a lot of time discussing the proper role of diplomacy in the conduct of foreign policy.

They want to kick the bums out and get the good guys in. They want change and they want a reason to believe things will get better. If you serve up a dish based on those two ingredients, you're halfway home with the dumb.

And don't be fooled, the dumb vote. They vote in droves. The other night, I was watching that annoying pollster Frank Luntz. You know the guy. He has these little focus groups that he babysits during the debates. He gives them all paddles from old Atari 2600's and records their reactions to what the candidates say, giving us an idea of what "works" and what "fails".

Luntz is an aggravation for 200 different reasons and may be the subject of a later post. That isn't important with regard to this conversation, however. The actual members of his focus group are. These are undecided voters. They may lean toward one candidate, but they haven't expressed outright support for either. They watch the debates and Luntz is then given an opportunity to quiz the shit out of them on a series of cable networks after the top-level spinners do their things.

These focus group members are dumb. Plain old stupid. I'm not talking about "I can't read and I speak like a character from some hillbilly-bashing movie" dumb. I'm talking about "I look like a normal person and I am, which means I'm also stupid as shit" dumb.

You see, most people are sort of dim-witted when it comes the whole governance thing. They spent civics and government classes checking out the ass on the girl sitting in front of them. They worried about the prom committee. They sketched pictures of hot rods or wrote notes to friends during class.

Their intellectual curiosity may have been sufficient for them to limp through college in a similar fashion. Now, if they do any investigation of anything, it's usually because their stuck in a doctor's waiting room with nothing but an old Golf Digest and a 1998 Newsweek at their disposal. If they read, they read horrible Mitch Albom shit or mystery novels. If they watch the news, they go local in hopes of finding out how lousy the weather is going to be be or they seek out the more "exciting" form of television news--shows where people yell at each other in a constant partisan circle jerk. They're dumb.

OK, they might not be clinically stupid. In terms of selecting quality leadership, however, they are dunces. They are stupid, naive, and easily swayed by Hope and Change.

Luntz's focus group participants--people who are sufficiently engaged to participate in a debate-watching and analysis session--are evidence of this. These morons inevitably reference whatever has been the prevailing headline of the last 96 hours and/or incredibly easy-to-understand but amazingly trivial arguments about the not-so-important when they're quizzed. They can get downright heated about the Obama "plagiarism" bullshit, but they're completely baffled by the difference in Barack's and Hillary's health insurance schemes.

They WANT to be involved and they WANT to "get it", but they're unequipped. They don't have the background. They don't do the reading. They haven't been bit by the policy or politics bugs like the people who are probably reading this blog. They can't. They fall into the diversionary traps of campaigns and they fall in love with the simplistic and positive.

Dumb people are a core constituency for Barack Obama right now.

Don't read that as a criticism of Barack. That's not my intent. The winner of a Presidential election probably always gets the stupid vote majority. I'm sure Bill Clinton cleaned up with the dummies. GW Bush probably did, too. The stupid outnumber the bright, and if you can get the not-so-with-it crowd on your side, you're in damn good shape.

Note that I'm exaggerating a bit for effect. I'm not really saying that these folks are "dumb" in a traditional sense. They're just, shall we say, political ignorant? You know what I mean, wink-wink.


Smart people adore Barack Obama. That's because the sentiments and analyses underlying his simple Hope/Change message form an a priori critique of American politics. Obama's articles about the nature of political discourse, the divisiveness of standard partisan politics and the need to redefine both technique and goal in order to better govern the USA are just what the PhD in poli sci ordered.

Have you ever actually read the kind of stuff really smart people tend to write? I'm not talking about run-of-the-mill smarties. I'm talking about PhD candidates and those who make a living out of intellectualism. They're writing and reading articles that apply history to theory, that test core concepts of democracy and governance, and that question things the rest of the world takes for granted.

In the rarified air of the ivory tower, the day-to-day stuff doesn't matter all that much. An academic may be interested in what a grocery bagger's motivations are and whether her job in a supermarket represents a multi-level subjugation of woman via simultaneous commodification of the the Goddess Earth and the gum-chewing teenager. An academic probably isn't that interested in how the bagger pulls the paper sacks out of the rack or figures out how many cans of vegetables to put in a single sack.

The academic is interested in concept and theory, not in the purely pragmatic. The technocratic concerns of actual operation and policy take a backseat to the critique and the construction of intriguing meta-arguments.

The intellectual Obama supporter is enamored with his meta-critique of the process and doesn't have a really good idea of what difference the presence or absence of mandates in a healthcare policy will make.

Like the dummy, the scholar will fall in love with Hope/Change. Oh, some of it is a matter of the concepts tugging the right heartstrings, but it's mainly about the theoretical aspects of those ideas. "The power of ideas". You hear phrases like that from smart people all the time. They believe it and they think about it--a lot. The nuts and bolts, however, aren't all that interesting.


In Democratic circles, it seems like the middle is voting for Hillary. We're talking about people who aren't necessarily dummies but who don't spend hour upon hour reflecting on the meaning of liberal democracy. Nuts and bolts people. Technocrats and their ilk. The hands-on folk who have some understanding of the machine called government are probably leaning toward Hillary.

Hillary speaks to them. She codes her campaign in vague-as-hope notions like "Solutions" and talks about "readiness", but those keywords are a wink to those who put political nuts and bolts above ruminations on the theoretical.

Hillary fans like to talk about policy differences more than do Obama buffs. Clinton's backers have concerns about experience, just like a prospective employer might prefer and experienced machine operator over a novice.

The middle understands Clinton and her concerns with the question of "how" while the intellectuals ruminate on "why". The dumb? They're still back in the world of simple appeals.


Dumb + Smart > In the Middle

Thus, Obama wins.

That's simple. If you look at in those terms, you'll also find a theory that fits the overall narrative of this campaign. Hillary's supporters grow increasingly frustrated at their inability to win over voters even though they believe they are winning policy debates. Obama isn't having a policy debate. He's having a mindset debate. He's talking about paradigm shifts while Clinton talks about policy construction. The intellectuals chuckle at her for not understanding that you can't answer the Obama critique with discussions of policy mechanics. The eyes of the dumb glaze over and they reach for the positive antidote to boring old political arguments they think they've heard a million times. Hillary loses.


I fall into the intellectual crowd. My (somewhat reluctant) support of Obama is based less upon my assessment of his abilities as an administrator and is premised on the ideas he represents and his apparent dedication to altering the perspective and priority of governance on a "higher" level than that of "mere" policy.

You'll notice I'm sort of hard on the smarty-pants crowd in this post, even though I'm in the club. That's because I recognize the tendency among those who think my way to be self-important and wrapped up in the abstract instead of rolling up our sleeves and actual DOING something. At the same time, I thoroughly believe that smart critique and a recognition of its message are essential to creating paradigmatic changes that are a prerequisite to serious positive change.


As this campaign pushes forward, I'm beginning to have a little sympathy for Clinton supporters. Not for the weak-ass "let's say he plagiarized and that's why Hillary should win" bullshitters, but for the ones who think she really is the better candidate in terms of getting things done. I see them struggling to understand why others aren't getting their message. I can sense their frustration. They just aren't keying into the idea that many of the smarter folks believe there are prerequisite issues at play that prevent any real policy success until they are addressed. They don't understand how powerful simple, positive concepts are with those who don't spend all day reflecting upon the theoretical.

Clinton is winning her arguments, on some level. The problem is that the debate itself has already been redefined and she didn't get the memo. HOW you do it is of secondary importance to WHY you are doing it right now. The debate is more about IF anything big can happen if monsters far larger than any policy proposal aren't first slain.

Hillary isn't talking to me right now. She's not talking to the disaffected and frustrated, either. They're with me. They might be with me for different reasons, but they're here. That leaves Hillary with the "pretty smart but not academic/intellectually-oriented" crowd of can-do action people. They're a minority.

My sympathy for Hillary is limited, however. Instead of debating on the more theoretical level and engaging the reservations of those who believe that more than clever policy is necessary, she's decided to take the low road way too often. Her campaign seems to live and die by one-day mini-issues that do little more than distract from the meta AND from her own more policy-oriented positions. She's running a down and dirty old school campaign in a setting where that doesn't resonate with ANYONE. Whoops. That's why March 4 is looking more and more like her Alamo.


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  1. Yeah, my experience, now, John, after 6 years with no ivory towers blocking my view, is that the big picture theoretic and practical discussions really are the more important discussions and that nuts and bolts, as should be the case, follow when you figure out what direction you need to be taking.

    My financial affairs have totally convinced me of this. After 6 years of fumbling through financial chaos after having very little understanding of this world outside of the very theoretical understanding of economic issues, generally, but not big picture outlook on the world of personal finance and a practical understanding of finance in the economic world.

    But as I read Benjamin Graham, out of studying Warren Buffet, it's becoming very clear, actually. Now Graham is practical. But it is out of much clearer big picture vision of what the economy looks like, what securities and Wall Street looks like, what role they serve in the world of business, and what role an individual investor serves in that picture.

    And it's pretty clear to me that what Graham and Buffet are arguing, explicitly in Graham's work and implicitly in Buffets' investing, is that the mistake most people make in investing and business, generally, is that they get too focussed on making a quick buck and making decisions, right now, rather than having an adequate long-term understanding of the economy and investing, generally, in their particular work.

    And their argument I think is right: you need to understand fundamentals adequately before any of your practical day-to-day decisions are going to have any long-term effectiveness.

    And Hillary's problem, in my view, is not just that she is wrong about many fundamentals she is debating - which is always a problem, but it's less of an issue than her bigger problem - it is that she is so fuckin' cock sure she is right when I think she is wrong.

    She can't even imagine she might be wrong.

    Now that's a really fuckin' annoying tendency on the part of people who are right, nevertheless people who are wrong. So a little humility would be wise just so you look like such a fuckin' ass even when you might be right. I have been guilty of both this kind of arrogance and the other and worse kind of arrogance - being arrogant when you are wrong - more times than I can count. Still am, I'm sure.

    But I do think that Hillary has not engaged her critics well enough on the health care question and has just assumed that some right-wing-conspiracy has been out to get her and her heroic efforts to champion the poor who I am not convinced, in the least, that she would actually like if she met them, up close. Obama, on the other hand, who has worked with such people more of his life and who very likely would like poor folks more than Ms. Clinton, offers a more scaled back version of that mandate that, though I have my concerns about his proposal, takes more account for the concerns of poor people - the arrogance of rich liberals that all they have to do to rid the world of homelessness and the lack of health care for the poor is just mandate them out of existence is so fuckin' self-centered, I could fuckin' puke; and to wrap yourself in the cloak of "I throw the homeless in jail because I love them," or "I mandate the poor people, who may struggle with basic needs in any particular pay period. to carry health insurance because I care about them so" is insulting to poor people, as someone who spent most of my life in their ranks. I know, I know. Shared responsibility, yada, yada, bullshit. It's insulting. And Obama recognizes this better, I would imagine, in part, because he spends more time with them. It's not a project from afar that he conjured up with his Ivy League buddies to account for the guilt that they carry that they are going to be fucking people out of millions of dollars over the course of their lifetimes by playing dirty pool politis and calling it the best America has to offer. That fuckin' campaign makes me sick to my fuckin' stomach. In a million years I would rather be a poor person who heard some rich conservative who said, "I made my own and I don't want anything to you with your lazy, scabby ass," then I would listen to some rich fuckin' liberal say, "I made my own and you become too much of an eyesore for me, so I'm sending your ass to jail, and then you're gonna carry the insurance I tell you to carry, whether you have the money or not, because I fuckin' said so you fuckin' loser."

    And that is what that campaign is saying. And that's why I take umbrage with it. At least the conservative is honest and lets me live my own life on my own, foolish or not. The rich liberal doesn't want anything to do with me, either, but they feel pity on me, which is why I would be and spent most of my life so fuckin' hostile. Fuck you and your fuckin' pity is how I have spent my life and it's exactly what I would tell any poor person about what Hillary Clinton really thinks about them. Go take your fuckin' pity for a walk, I say. I can take care of myself. And I or Obama or someone or someone who actually gives a shit would give them a hand to do exactly that and wonder why Hillary Clinton ever tried to butt in in the first place.

    I'll take neglect over pity any fuckin' day of the week. Because at least, then, I'm free to figure out my life on my own.

    But luckily, on that particular question, poor people don't have to make that choice. There is at least one candidate who really gives a shit about the more than the others.

    I have plenty of disagreements with Barack, but it would be hard to deny that he actually cares about poor folks more than the rest of those candidates. Same for Bill Bradley in 2000. That's why it's so insulting to hear Hillary Clinton - who knows poor people by their vote count - to pretend like she really is the candidate of the downtrodden. What a fuckin' joke. That woman has no fuckin' shame.

    And that's what drives me crazy about her. She's a fuckin' phony. I don't know all the reasons that people hate Hillary Clinton, but that's the reason for my hostility to her fuckin' whiny, bullying, intellectually dishonest campaign. She's a fuckin' phony. She and this whole campaign is the evil fuckin' twin to the Clinton campaigns in '92 and '96, and neither of them were clean enough to not have that evil quotient take her over the edge. Hillary Clinton needs to go suck her fuckin' thumb for a couple of years and think about why people don't like her.

    Because the reason is really fuckin' simple.

    Her whole fuckin' existence is one long condescension of everyone who is not her. And the worst part is, she happens to be fuckin' wrong about a lot of stuff, I think. This is why people like Hillary Clinton have got to drive George Will up a fuckin' wall. George Will's not second coming of the messiah. But he's a mile smarter than fuckin' Hillary Clinton. So to be condescended on a whole host of questions that I think Will is right about and Clinton is wrong about is hubris in the extreme. And at least George Will can speak for himself, whereas the homeless guy is just kind of fucked.

    Hillary Clinton has got plenty of policy proposals, if you happen to think that her direction in policies are the right ones. But on a whole host of issues I think she is working in the wrong direction.

    And what I like about Obama and McCain and plenty of less shitty people in the world is that I can have that discussion and it's not some long screed from some arrogant bitch about how the world just doesn't recognize the brilliance that she hasn't fuckin' earned yet.

    Hillary Clinton, much like Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, E.J. Dionne, and arrogant partisan pricks of all kinds in the world, needs to get straight that the debate isn't fuckin' over yet. Not by a long fuckin' shot. On health care. On foreign policy. On Iraq. On the economy. On a whole host of fuckin' issues. I do think there are better directions that those scholarly debates offer us. And even very brilliant people disagree on those directions. I have my sense of what I think are the best directions among the range of options out there.

    But I can't fuckin' stomach, anymore, is anyone - and I don't give a shit how fuckin' smart or not they are, anymore - acting like it's not even worth their fuckin' breath to debate or discuss matters, anymore, because they're fuckin' right and everyone else is fuckin' wrong and there's no use questioning otherwise.

    That is the stink of the ultimate kind of arrogance - the kind that comes with the most serious power -that people like Clinton, Krauthmammer, Kriston, Dionne, and others have been stinking of this election. I want to fuckin' vomit in each of their fuckin laps while I challenge the fuck out of their reasoning, all of whom leave too much to be desired to be fuckin' condescending anyone.

    That's why I don't like Clinton. Because of all of the candidates, this season, she reflects that kind of arrogance of power that I find more revolting than anything else in the world. I even prefer stupidity to that shit. Give a nice, stupid person any day of the week who is open to a discussion about something they don't understand, than a smart, arrogant prick like Charles Krauthammer acting like they have more final answers than they really have.

    I'd still take Charles, Hillary, E.J., and Bill over some stupid, arrogant prick who thinks that, stupid or not, the debate and the discussion don't matter. I'll take arrogance over apathy, I suppose. I get plenty of that in my classroom. But just barely. And not enough to think it better than it is.

    I think Obama and McCain are winning for this much more intuitive reason. Because voters sense, as I do, that these two guys might be guys you might like actually having a conversation with and with whom you wouldn't be feeling like you were talking to a fucking brick wall who was convinced that they had more answers than they really do and now all that was needed was execution of their self-presumed brilliance. Clinton hasn't earned that title by a long shot. But she's convinced she has. And that's what bothers me about her.

    Obama's smarter than McCain, generally, I think. But there are still things that I think McCain may have a stronger understanding of, the war namely.

    But my support for both of them really has nothing to do with how smart either of them are or are not, necessarily. It's just they seem like two guys that I could sit down and have a conversation with and they would listen as well as have their own opinions.

    I don't know. Maybe I'm over the edge with my Hillary hostility, John. It's the more I see of that bitch, the more I fuckin' want to wipe that fuckin' smug grin off her face that she fuckin' knows more than she does. You want that distinction, I say you fuckin' earn. But you talk with Amartya Sen, for instance, or Muhammad Yunus, someone who does know far more than Hillary does with very little room for comparison, really, and you don't find some smug, arrogant shithead. Both of these guys are really decent, nice, and brilliant-as-all-shit poverty economists, one in the field and the other in academia. And they make Hillary Clinton look like a fuckin' embarrasment to the liberal cause by comparison.

    And the one thing that those two guys have in common with Barack Obama is that I trust that they actually give as shit about poor people and not as some cover for some pious pity that they learned from their childhood. People like Hillary Clinton can take their fuckin' pity and piss it into the fuckin' wind for all I care because that's all its worth. Really giving a shit takes more than obligatory pity. And Hillary just can't find it in herself, at this point, to offer anything else.

    Especially for herself.

    Maybe a couple years of time off for her and some self-reflection on her part might make me feel different about this. Or a more sympathetic understanding of her.

    And maybe I'm just tired and feeling under the weather and just not feeling very nice toward Ms. Clinton, at this moment, who knows.

    I should get home and get some soup in me.

  2. Just as an aside -

    I have to say that pity as a source of power has got to be one of the most ingenious rackets that has ever been invented in the history of humanity.

    Stalin gets to look like Mother Theresa and Kim Jong Il is fuckin' Jesus Christ.

    The more I understand some of the deeper motivations of cynical power-mongering - self-pity and self-centered outlooks, generally; what do Yasser Arafat, Adolph Hitler and Hillary Clinton all haver in common? OK, she's not Arafat or Hitler, but you get the idea - the more disgusted I am by it and by our own failure to recognize it well enough. I suppose this election is vindication of peoples' common sense.

    And at least with Hillary Clinton, I know that I can still go to whatever bar I want to go to, say whatever the fuck I want to say on the internet and elsewhere, and, generally, live a free life of an average Joe in the good ol' U.S. of A. I used to have this kind of hostility for George Bush and I got over it. So maybe I can get past my Hillary-anger as well.

    Arrogance of power really pisses me the fuck off.

    And makes me hungry. I need some dinner.