After a week of partisan protests and charges of racism, reverse-racism, race-baiting, and dishonesty,
it would be easy for a pundit to simply throw his hands up in disgust. It
would be easier still to vilify one side or the other side.
But David Brooks did neither
and managed to frame this week's viciousness in a manner
that is easy to grasp, has deep historical roots, and takes honest
account of both points of view. "It’s not race. It’s another type of
conflict, equally deep and old," Brooks declared. "What we're seeing is the latest iteration of that
populist tendency and the militant progressive reaction to it."
But my impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts. For example, for generations schoolchildren studied the long debate between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power. Jeffersonians were suspicious of urban elites and financial concentration and believed in small-town virtues and limited government. Jefferson advocated “a wise and frugal government” that will keep people from hurting each other, but will otherwise leave them free and “shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
This populist tendency continued through the centuries. Sometimes it took right-wing forms, sometimes left-wing ones. Sometimes it was agrarian. Sometimes it was more union-oriented. Often it was extreme, conspiratorial and rude.
Brooks chided Obama for provoking the Jeffersonians, whose anger, he says, Obama could have anticipated with better historical perspective.
Barack Obama leads a government of the highly educated. His movement includes urban politicians, academics, Hollywood donors and information-age professionals. In his first few months, he has fused federal power with Wall Street, the auto industry, the health care industries and the energy sector.
Given all of this, it was guaranteed that he would spark a populist backlash, regardless of his skin color. And it was guaranteed that this backlash would be ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top — since these movements always are, whether they were led by Huey Long, Father Coughlin or anybody else.