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Is That All You Got?

You can’t say last night’s spectacle of symbolic resentments at the Republican National Convention was unexpected. With little else to talk about, it’s been clear for some time that the GOP would go back to the old us-versus-them playbook one more time. And if high-minded types can accurately call it a distraction ploy—gin up some anger against know-it-all community organizers to keep the conversation away from matters of health care or the environment or the war—it’s one that has proven effective in the past. Pit proudly square America against decadent hip America and the squares win.

I’m not so sure it will be so effective in 2008. Us versus them works well when you define us broadly and them narrowly. But have the Republicans done so? Amid all the excoriations of the media and Hollywood, the non-cosmopolitan small-town “us” described by Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney and (improbably enough) Rudy Giuliani was a rather narrow group. It was enough to whip the Republican base into a frenzy, but think of what buttons didn’t get pushed. There was no implication, say, that this unspecific “them” wanted to foist unpopular sexual identities on middle American schoolkids, or rationalize the misdeeds of (psst...minority!) criminals who would mug middle American moms, or eject Old Glory from middle American public space. A knowing jab at Michelle Obama won’t send anyone to the barricades the way an implication that Michael Dukakis would ban your local school’s pledge of allegiance once did.

Nobody likes a snob, and if Republicans succeed in hanging that label on Obama, it will help their chances immensely. But given the discontents of 2008, I think effective culture-war vitriol needs to also present a Democratic win as some sort of existential threat to a way of life. In Okie From Muskogee, the original anthem of right-wing culture-war politics, Merle Haggard notes that people in the town “don’t burn our draft cards,” “don’t let our hair grown long and shaggy,” and “don’t make a party out of loving,” among other coastal sins. He also praises the town as “a place where even squares can have a ball.” To my mind, the Republicans haven’t—yet!—depicted this year's rivals as the sort of left-wing killjoys who would cancel that ball (or require that it be opened to drag queens).

I’m not sure how many actual voters would feel threatened even if the Democrats were the out-and-out Muskogee-haters of RNC imagination. Peggy Noonan yesterday quoted a conservative pollster who said “We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos.” In fact, insofar as our blessedly diverse 300 million people constitute a nation of any single thing, we’re a nation of Schaumburgs and Planos and Eden Prairies and Chula Vistas and Woodbridges. Residents there might have ample Jeffersonian affection for an idealized small-town lifestyle. But my sense is they don’t feel the kind of visceral anger against supposed elite tastes and institutions that Republicans, honestly or otherwise, expressed last night. The sheer variety of modern American life, with hundreds of cable channels to choose from and thousands of websites to undercut the major media, with superstores that sell both arugula and (for all I know) moose, makes it harder to feel that threatened. I suppose journalists have a self-interest in being up on the media industry’s financial woes, but it’s not like civilians are completely unaware of the sea change it represents.

--Michael Schaffer