Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gordon Wood on C-Span

Gordon Wood talks about the American Revolution and Franklin here (HT - Elisabeth Grant). I'd be interested to hear what people think about what he says about McCarthy, the Tea Party, etc. at 2:29-3:50.

It strikes me as a good point, but very, very oddly expressed. So he talks about the fifties and says elites distrusted popular movements and regular Americans when they thought that McCarthy threatened a sort of neo-fascism. Sure - fine. There was elitist, academic distrust of conservatives at the time. But mid-century is that really the elite-against-popular-causes thing you'd immediately think to highlight? What about the Civil Rights movement? Isn't that the most obvious instance of elites militating against popular movements? He also points out opposition to the Tea Party. But what about the popular movement behind Obama? Some of these "elitist-vs.-the-people" narratives can be very confused, I think. It's bizarre to see people like Sarah Palin tell me about what "the people want" and tell me that I'm on the side of the elites. From my angle, Palin is quite an elite. Ron Paul lecturing me from the heights of Capitol Hill on elitists? It's almost laughable. Do these people realize they're elites? Do they not understand that it's "the people" who make up most of the opposition to the Tea Party?

The reality is this - there are multiple popular movements. Two major ones are the supporters of Obama's initiatives, which has been nothing if not a popular movement - and the Tea Party. Both of these popular movements have elites on their side. But each is trying to spin the narrative as "elites-vs.-the-people". What's amazing is that these narratives persist. I think it's symptomatic of a depressing lack of dialogue. If you think of the Tea Party as "the people" and the movement behind Obama as "the elites" then you aren't paying attention to what's going on. The same goes for people who dismiss the Tea Party as a corporate front, think the Tea Party represents "the elites" and Obama is for "the people".

Smart people trade in these misrepresentations, though. Arnold Kling talks about "elites" all the time.

I think it's very misleading.

Gordon Wood studies a period of history where there was a group of elites and they were fairly non-chalant about saying "yes, I think the elites should rule the people". His mistake, I think, is bringing that into today - into the 50s and 60s, and then into the 21st century. Often what we have is warring popular movements, each with its own set of allied elites.

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