I don’t think too many people really question the culture of their hometown until they’ve had an opportunity to live someplace else for a while. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, an affluent Ivy League town where education is highly prized and raw intelligence is valued above most other human attributes.
The first flaw I detected in our culture was snobbery. A little while later I began to diagnose this as an undervaluation of other virtues like hard work, common sense, and compassion and empathy.
Eventually, I came back around to a more sympathetic view. It was understandable and basically inevitable that the people of Princeton would place a lot of value on the things they invested in. It’s hard to look at academic achievement as something important and praiseworthy and not to look askance at people who don’t live a life of the mind. It’s really no different from the skepticism an art student faces when they’re living in a family of auto mechanics or landscapers. People have a hard time seeing the point in living a life that doesn’t make sense to them. There’s a strong temptation to dehumanize people whose value system is completely different, especially when they place very little value on the things you hold most dear.
I’ve never fully escaped the Princeton value system, even as I’ve spent my adult life questioning it and constantly reappraising it. I have a very hard time abiding ignorance and have almost no patience for sloppy reasoning. As hard as I’ve worked to see the dignity of more working class cultures and even to dedicate myself to a politics centered on helping people cope with and advance out of difficult or modest beginnings, I sometime slip into feeling contempt for people who are not very intelligent.
I don’t excuse myself for this, but at the same time there is no way for me to fully overcome the consequences of placing a value on knowing things, like basic history and having at least a cursory understanding of the current status of scientific knowledge.
Where I live now, on the outskirts of the Main Line Philadelphia suburbs, things are not all that different from where I grew up across the river. The area is studded with elite liberal arts colleges and filled with professionals with advanced degrees. As the Democratic Party becomes less and less affiliated with the white working class, and the Republican Party becomes more of an anti-intellectual movement than a sign of status, this area is transforming rapidly from one of the most reliably Republican areas of the country into the base of the Democratic Party in the Keystone State.
In this area of the country, it simply hurts people’s brains to listen to the president talk. Take, for example, this statement Trump made during a rambling speech on Saturday at the CPAC conference in Washington DC.
The president also mocked the Green New Deal’s climate-related provisions, deriding the plan as promoting “no planes, no energy.”
“When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric,” Trump said, before launching into an impression. “ ‘Darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.’ ”
The more the Republican Party embraces this kind of willful stupidity, the harder it is for them to be taken seriously by people who value education, and that means that the suburbs are becoming inhospitable for them even in places like Texas. As a result, the GOP is already investing a lot of energy and money in the suburbs around Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. They saw a massive weakening of their position in those areas in the 2018 midterms, and they’re not sure what to make of it.
Next November will be the real test of whether midterm results were a flash in the pan — a combination of [Beto] O’Rourke’s popular Senate candidacy and a traditional midterm setback for the president’s party, or signs of bigger headwinds for Texas Republicans.
“I still think people are trying to decide how much of [the midterm results] were idiosyncratic,” said Republican campaign strategist Jerod Patterson, “or how much is structural changes in electorate.”
But Texas Republicans acknowledge that they have to win over voters like women, minorities and others that President Donald Trump has alienated and who are moving to Texas towns.
I’m no expert on Texas but I do understand the mindset of highly educated people, and I’m fairly certain that Lone Star Republicans are missing a big part of the puzzle if they think their only problem is women and minorities.
It might be easier for them to diagnose this if they more carefully examined where their strength is growing. They’re doing well in places that do not value education very highly and where people do not immediately suffer debilitating brain cramps every time they hear the Republicans say scientifically illiterate things. It’s true that Trump speaks differently from traditional politicians, and a lot of people enjoy hearing him taunt and defame people and institutions that they feel have let them down. They don’t like people who lord it over them either because they have more money or more education. Many of these folks voted for the Democrats in the past because they were the party of the working class, but they’re leaving to join with Trump because of his anti-elitist rhetoric.
But where there’s a push there is also a pull, and the same jarring rhetoric is repelling educated folks who used to vote for the GOP because they stood for low taxes, strong national defense, and were tough on the urban crime many suburbanites had fled in search of a more stable and secure future for their children.
The Republicans are losing the suburbs because they’ve become the stupid party.
If you think about this for two seconds, it makes sense. The Democrats appealed to working folks because they supported labor unions and stood up for worker’s rights. They defended people against predatory employers and exploitative industries that prey on people facing economic hardship. The Republicans don’t defend working folks at all, so the appeal has to be based on feeling. It’s values-based, but the values are populist primarily in an anti-intellectual, anti-elite sense. It’s no longer about class resentment related to poor pay, poor housing and poor working conditions. It’s about cultural resentment against people who think they’re better because they’re smarter, better-educated, more cosmopolitan, more “enlightened.”
Republicans can’t remain with one foot rooted in Wall Street and the other foot rooted in the coal and oil fields and still be a worker’s party unless they work overtime to fuel and exploit this resentment. The difficulty is that this makes suburbanites want to Clorox their cerebral cortex whenever they see an Oklahoma senator take a snowball onto the Senate floor to explain that climate change is a myth.
There’s a lesson here for the Democrats, too. They’re beginning to lose their working class roots. They’re beginning to have disdain for people who don’t get a brain cramp when they hear Trump speak. I recognize the snobbery and lack of empathy because I grew up with it. It’s something that must be overcome. Just as the Republicans are failing in the suburbs, the Democrats are failing in many of their old strongholds. This isn’t a political realignment that should just be accepted by the left.
On the other hand, the people who should lead the way for the Democrats in the areas where they are weakening, are the Democrats who live in those communities. Cultural elites and geographical outsiders aren’t good messengers and they frankly don’t get and can’t properly represent people who don’t share some of their core values.
As far as I am concerned, there are no communities that don’t need representation from the left, and the left can’t be true to itself if it abandons working folks in any place or at any time. When places or organizations get too intellectualized, they do become snobbish and elitist. The Democrats need to fight against that trend just as the Republicans, if they want to hold onto Texas, need to quit dumbing things down to a Louie Gohmert level.