A Campaign of Condescension? You Betcha!
--by Peter Haney
Although the world will remember 2008 Presidential election as a milestone in
For Bourdieu, regular readers of this blog will recall, a strategy of condescension occurs when someone at the top of a social hierarchy adopts the speech or style of those at the bottom. With such a move, the dominant actor seeks to profit from the inequality that he or she ostensibly negates. When Anglo politicians, for example, trot out a few words of broken Spanish on the
This is precisely the risk of a strategy of condescension. Bourdieu notes that a dominant actor who symbolically negates hierarchies must do so “without appearing to be ignorant or incapable of satisfying their demands” (1991:69). In her effort to play with hierarchies of linguistic competence, Sarah Palin failed to convince voters that she was above the game. Her attempt to present herself as plain folks failed precisely because people believed it. Joe Biden, by contrast, failed less badly because people, on some level, did not believe him. Another interesting contrast is the case of Senator Hillary Clinton, who was roundly mocked for aping the speech of audiences in the South on the campaign trail. In Clinton’s case, national audiences found her affected drawl so different from her usual speaking style that they doubted its authenticity. Palin inspired no such doubts, but this alone does not explain her failure. Remember that the current occupant of the White House is the scion of an elite New England political family who used language to convince the world that he was a Texas cowboy. His colloquialisms were as forced and robotic as Palin’s, and they succeeded equally well in giving him a common touch with the public. That both Palin and Bush convinced the country of their speech styles’ authenticity is clear from the work of comedians who satirize them. Tina Fey’s overrated Saturday Night Live parody, which recast the Alaska governor as a defanged, rustic ingénue, reinforced rather than questioning Palin’s “Wasilla hillbilly” persona. Similarly, the legion of comedians who lampoon Bush never show him letting the Good Old Boy act lapse while relaxing with Poppy. Belief was not the issue here. But few voters appear to have worried about Bush’s competence or command of policy until after the disastrous consequences of his policies and tactics became clear. These same voters would not give Palin a chance. What explains this difference?
There are many possible reasons for this apparent contradiction. One is sexism. Another is what I would call condescension fatigue. Regarding sexism, we might start by asking why Gov. Palin never found a gender-appropriate term when she described herself as a “Joe Six-Pack.” The likely answer is that whatever good qualities Americans may attribute to working class White masculinity are weaker for working class White femininity. Voters who once elected a President who talked like a guy they could have a beer with may very well have balked at electing a female Vice President whose speech gave the same impression. Joe Six-Pack may have a shot at public office, but his sister Jane? Forget it. Still, it seems unlikely that sexism alone can explain Palin’s downfall. If condescension fatigue is a factor, it may be that the previous administration has run strategies of condescension into the ground. Having seen themselves, their neighbors, and the world hurt by wolfish conservatism in populist sheep’s clothing, voters may very well have responded differently this year to the common touch than they did in 2000 and 2004. Given the perception that incompetence played a role in the failure of the administration’s occupation of Iraq, its neglect of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and its mismanagement of the economy, voters may well have hungered for signs of the intellectual sophistication and technical expertise that most of us do not associate with working class speech. If this is true, it may follow that the Democrats prevailed not because of Biden’s trips to Home Depot but in spite of them. Other factors may also be at work here. One thing, however, is clear. If the candidates’ populist style ends up translating into policies that benefit the majority of Americans, it will be because that majority stands up and demands it. Until then, the only freedom we can expect to enjoy is the free play of elite political speech styles unmoored from any organic links to the interests of the electorate.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. "Price Formation and the Anticipation of Profits." In John Thompson, Gino Raymond, and Matthew Adamson, Eds. and Trans. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 66-90.