Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Campaign of Condescension? You Betcha!

--by Peter Haney

Although the world will remember 2008 Presidential election as a milestone in U.S. race relations, campaign talk was also shot through with open gender conflict and sublimated class conflict, both on the levels of style and content. And in the race between style and content, style won the election handily in volley after volley of half-truths, anecdotes, and competing synecdoches. This was nowhere more noticeable than in the media circus surrounding Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. During her time in the spotlight, Governor Palin delighted Christian conservatives by combining ideological purity with chirpy, homespun belligerence. These same qualities inspired obsessive hatred in self-professed liberals. For liberal commentators who take pride in their intellectual sophistication, she has been an irresistible foil. For similarly inclined conservatives, she has been an embarrassment. Poll after poll has suggested that after an initial period of infatuation, voters began to doubt her intelligence and qualification for the job of Vice President. The significance of these doubts for the Republican loss in 2008 will be debated endlessly. What is clear is that Gov. Palin exposed the perversity of what passes for populism in U.S. political discourse. The idea that “anybody” could become president is such a powerful cliché in U.S. politics that smart writers devote entire books to refuting it. But Palin inspired even some populists to wonder whether opening up the White House to just anybody was a good idea. All this suggests that her fall from political grace can be seen as a failed example of what the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls a strategy of condescension.

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 U.S. campaign trail, they hope to benefit from the unspoken rule that political discourse here will occur in English. It is precisely that rule that leads some voters who identify with the Spanish language to see its use as a thoughtful gesture on the politician’s part. Although Palin’s campaign persona represents an extreme example of the strategy of condescension, she was not the only candidate to take such an approach. Vice President Elect Joe Biden’s endless allusions to his childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania and visits to Home Depot are also textbook examples. Note that for Biden, being an ordinary guy is all about consumption and style rather than labor. When President Elect Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech that the change he represented had been “a long time comin’,” he replaced the nasal consonant represented by “ng” in English spelling with that represented by “n.” In the U.S., this substitution connotes informality and is popularly associated with both White working class and African American vernacular speech. White middle-class liberal friends of mine have criticized Palin for her colloquialism and have expressed longing for a vice president who could, in their words, “prounounce a g.” Most of these friends render “ng” as “n” themselves in unguarded moments, of course, although few of them use her regionally marked nasalized vowels. They key difference here is that my friends believe that Obama can use the formal, standard register of English and that Sarah Palin cannot. I am less convinced of the Governor’s linguistic inflexibility. But it is clear in any case that those who mock her speech see her apparent lack of access to privileged styles as a sign of other, more serious deficiencies.

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.