When Matt Drudge had the nerve — unlike the mainstream media — to remind the world that not only BP’s CEO, but the federal government’s Chief Executive, too, was enjoying high-class leisure last weekend instead of donning sackcloth and ashes (or using them to wick up some of the oil in the gulf) I think he was saying something like what columnist Mat Bai wrote in in last week’s NewYork Times. Bai lays out the heretical notion that as mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-any-more Mr. and Mrs. America are today, it’s not the kind of mad that you cure by dusting off your Woody Guthrie records:
[T]oday’s only viable brand of populism, the same strain that Ross Perot expertly tapped as an independent presidential candidate in 1992, is not principally about the struggling worker versus his corporate master. It is about the individual versus the institution — not only business, but also government and large media and elite universities, too.
You do not have to be working for the minimum wage, after all, to seethe about the effects of the Wall Street meltdown on your retirement savings or the spilled oil creeping toward your shores. You simply have to fear that large institutions generally exercise too much power and too little responsibility in society.
This new American populism is why the federal deficit has emerged as a chief concern for voters, as it did in Mr. Perot’s era — not because it presents an imminent crisis of its own, necessarily, but because it signifies a kind of institutional recklessness, a disconnectedness from the reality of daily life.
The same dynamic explains the current spate of questions over the composition of the Supreme Court, which may soon consist entirely of lawyers trained at Harvard and Yale. It does not seem to matter that virtually all of those justices advanced from the middle class, rather than through inheritance. The pervasive reach of exclusive educational institutions is unnerving to some Americans now, and it helps inspire the caustic brand of populism that Sarah Palin and others have made central to their political identities.
What this means for Mr. Obama is that an anxious populace is now less likely to see his clash with BP as an instance of government’s standing up to a venal corporation, but rather as an instance of both sprawling institutions having once again failed to protect them. . . .
In other words, voters perceive both business and government as part of an interdependent system, and it is hard for them to separate out the culpability of either.
It’s not just that the President of the United States was enjoying a leisure-time activity when somewhere in the country of which he is the head of state and government something awful is happening. From my point of view, that is in and of itself just fine. He’s as a non-technically educated, delicate, middle-aged man whose help in cleaning up the Gulf Coast would be worthless at best, and cynical, symbolic and insincere photo ops of chief executives “rolling up their sleeves” do not move me.
But what was the President doing? Well, he was golfing. Golf: that demanding, expensive and elite game that most black people (and plenty of white people) don’t even think is a real sport, kind of the way regular people like you and me can’t really appreciate how it is that investment banking positions for people with no background in business or finance, yet which pay $16 million dollars in three years, is a “real job.” Golfing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but…
The fact that the Obamas, in many ways, have more in common with their fellow Ivy leaguers than they do with most regular folks, regardless of race, is a missing grace note to Bai’s essay. For this too suggests that it is not only the Democratic Party’s ossified mythology of class, but its long-outdated orthodoxy regarding race, that are utterly out of step with the reality known by the “people” who make populism popular.
The only thing that can perpetuate this political class in the long run is that class of true fat cats, meaning the gummint kind, helped along by their mewling spawn — socialized mainstream education, from primary through “higher.” Getting their spray off the water will make the Oil Spill of 2010 look an overturned bottle of 10W40.