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Elite anti-elitism

Posted: October 13, 2010 11:36 a.m.
Updated: October 18, 2010 5:00 a.m.

In her continuing effort to distance herself from her own beliefs, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell is trying her level best to convince the world that she's a genuine, regular person. If she can fake that, as an old saying goes, she's got it made.

In her first television ad as the state's Republican Senate nominee, the youthful 41-year-old famously announced, "I am not a witch." I'm glad so that she cleared that up. This may be the first time since the 1692 Salem witch trials that an American candidate has felt compelled to make that disclaimer.

Having set a low bar of achievement for herself, her more recent television ad slides even farther down the socioeconomic ladder of one-downsmanship. "I didn't go to Yale," she proudly declares, "... I am YOU." That probably doesn't help her with voters who did go to Yale, but they're probably voting for her opponent anyway, who happens to be one of THEM.

He is Democratic Chris Coons, the New Castle County executive and holder of two post-graduate degrees in law and divinity -- from Yale.

O'Donnell, by contrast, has been awash in more proletarian disputes, such as whether she exaggerated her own educational credentials and used campaign donations to pay rent. If she's calculating that people who hold Yale degrees are outnumbered by those who are having trouble getting their rent paid, she's undoubtedly right. Getting those troubled economically stretched folks to vote for her is another matter, one that calls for large volleys of projectile "I'm YOU" empathy along with lots of elite-bashing because they don't care about "YOU."

With that O'Donnell's story illustrates the larger theme of the Tea Party that backs O'Donnell's rise: They've taken the "elitist" trope that Republicans and other conservatives have flung at their enemies at least since the 1960s and put it on steroids.

Even fellow conservatives are not immune. Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle, for example, called Sen. Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican, an "out of touch" elitist after he pointed out something obvious about the Tea Partiers: They have no identifiable strategy.

Bennett's comment came after he lost his renomination because he wasn't conservative enough for his party's Tea Party activists. In a later interview, Angle shot back that Bennett "has become one of the elitists that is no longer in touch with" constituents back home.

With that, Angle shows herself to be a Tea Partier who does have a strategy after all: Redefine "elitist" as anyone who disagrees with you.

That view appears to be shared by Carly Fiorina, California's Republican Senate nominee. In an April fundraising letter she didn't let her past as a CEO of Hewlett Packard stop her from warning that "the American Dream is in danger" due to "elitists" in charge of the government. Her remedy? Elect her, a leader from America's corporate elite, instead.

Sharing this partisan view of who an "elitist" is, conservative activist Virginia "Ginni" Thomas recently rallied a cheering Tea Party crowd in Virginia by declaring, "We are ruled by an elite that thinks it knows better than we know." She ought to know. She's married to a member of an elite, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Members of the high court routinely think they know what's better for the country than the rest of us do. It is almost a job description.

That's why O'Donnell's desperate attempt to devalue Ivy League diplomas strikes me as a disturbing turn, even in America's political right, where downwardly mobility seems to be attracting high praise.

It saddens me to hear other conservatives -- many of whom quite properly denounce black kids who ridicule academic achievement as "acting white" -- ridicule high-achieving college graduates as "elitists."

What kind of message does that send to our children? Work hard, get a good education and maybe you, too, can become successful enough to be denounced as an elitist?

That's why, when I hear Obama's critics knock him with the E-word, I take it as a sign of social progress. As recently as two or three decades ago, it would have been inconceivable for a black man to be portrayed as out of touch with the working class -- unless perhaps he was a member of the underclass. We've come a long way as a nation, haven't we?

Obama should wear his achievement proudly, but not too proudly. Somebody might think he's stuck-up.

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