The United States of America cannot be governed by platitude.
Edna Ferber, author of Giant, had a great ear for one of the subtlest American dialects: High Texan Bulls***, the mother tongue of almost every politician to make it from the Lone Star State to the national stage, from Lyndon Johnson to Ross Perot to George W. Bush to Rick Perry. “It was part of the Texas ritual,” Ferber wrote. “We’re rich as son-of-a-bitch stew but look how homely we are, just as plain-folksy as Grandpappy back in 1836. We know about Champagne and caviar but we talk hog and hominy.”
(If only for the phrase “rich as son-of-a-bitch stew,” Ferber should have been carried down Broadway on a palanquin by members of the Algonquin Round Table.)
It isn’t only the Texans, anymore. Hog and hominy is the language of politics from sea to shining sea. You know this if you watch cable news.
Subtitling television programming has to be one of the worst jobs in writing, and sometimes words cannot really capture what is happening on screen, hence vague descriptions such as “crosstalk” or “jaunty music” or (this is supposedly genuine) “loudly implied cannibalism.” The subtitling teams over at CNN and Fox News et al. should add to their arsenal the phrase “folksy moral certitude.” They could save themselves some time when covering political debates, speeches, and rallies.
In the language of folksy moral certitude, a key phrase is “Where I come from.” This is a phrase used to recruit the folk to your cause, whether they like it or not. If a politician wants to say that something is naughty, he does not have to argue that it is naughty or to prove its naughtiness, but only need say, “Where I come from, we think that is naughty.” And thus the hardscrabble honest working-class cartoons of Scranton or Cleveland or Toad Suck, Arkansas, are reduced to moral ballast for the convenience of some Harvard-educated millionaire lawyer who was too lazy to sue insurance companies for a living and went to Washington instead.
No surprise that Elizabeth Warren is big on “where I come from,” e.g.,
Where I come from, nobody calls fine print, hidden fees, and surprise penalties “negotiated contract terms” or ‘innovations.” On a polite day, my brothers in Oklahoma call that kind of stuff “garbage.”
The implied profanity there is part of the idiotic idiom. Profanity is the moron’s shorthand for moral urgency — remember those “Sarah Palin Is a C***” T-shirts. Senator Warren doesn’t want to do her own cursing, so she drafts her brothers and puts words into their mouths.
In reality, there is a bit more to those legal questions than folksy moral certitude will admit, which is why those nice gentlemen over at Kirkland & Ellis earn $1 million a month or so.
This is not news to Professor Warren of Harvard Law, where they expect their students to actually learn about contract law — negotiated contract terms and all! — and will not accept nuggets of folksy wisdom of her brothers in Oklahoma or her Cherokee-princess great-grandmother or whatever as though these were something of value. Senator Warren knows this. Her chair at Harvard was not endowed by plainspoken Oklahoma hog farmers — it was endowed by a law firm that made a lot of money helping multinational banks that profited from the Bernie Madoff fraud avoid paying compensation to his victims. Was that a bad thing for them to do? Legal experience and folksy moral certitude may produce incompatible opinions on that. I am sure that Senator Warren could provide a very persuasive explanation. A half dozen of them, probably.
The critical factor here is that Senator Warren does not think that students at Harvard Law are stupid but believes, not without some reason, that voters are. So it’s Champagne and caviar in Cambridge and hog and hominy for you hay-humping serfs down in Oklahoma.
The average voter is not stupid. The average voter is average. What people are is ignorant — all of us. Even the smartest and most knowledgeable of people are smart and knowledgeable only about a relatively narrow range of subjects. The smarter ones understand that specialization implies limitation, and the less smart ones do not. (Ask any old man with a gold Rolex yelling at Fox News.) People tend to be biased in believing that the kind of knowledge they have is the important kind and that other kinds are less valuable and hence are susceptible to the stratagem that has taken Warren and so many others like her so far in politics: pretending that complex problems can be easily solved by lightly informed amateurs if only enough folksy wisdom is hurled at them.
Senator Warren is a kind of chimera, part folksy-wisdom dispenser and part would-be technocrat. That is where the Democratic Party is right at the moment: The folksy moral certitude on offer insists that thorny social problems can be solved (with no unpleasant tradeoffs!) by giving the right people power to manage the technocrats. Senator Warren’s bronze-medal move was trying to catch her own pitch.
Joe Biden is famously big on “Where I come from” even when he is not sure where he is trying to go. In February, the man who would be king stood before an audience and declared: “Where I come from, you don’t go very far unless you ask. My name’s Joe Biden. I’m a Democratic candidate for the United States Senate.” After some time, he remembered that he was running for president, having retired from the Senate some years ago and none too soon.
The contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will be one of competing folksy moral certitudes. In spite of the manful efforts of some of my colleagues on the right, Trumpism remains a collection of shallow slogans rather than a collection of ideas or principles. Joe Biden could easily run on the slogan “Make America Great Again” if it weren’t already taken. So could have Bernie Sanders. That is because those four words have no intellectual content, only emotional appeal. What do they mean? That needs no explanation: We, the People, know! “Where I come from, Make America Great Again is so obvious that it doesn’t need explaining.” Lucky thing, that, as anybody who has ever watched President Trump try to explain anything knows. Biden made his political living serving as the credit-card industry’s ambassador to Washington. Where Joe Biden comes from, they know . . . all about the benefits of a preferential legal environment when making corporate-domiciling decisions for multinational financial concerns.
The shortcomings of folksy moral certitude are obvious enough. When there are not enough ventilators to go around, politicians will stampede to the microphones to declare: “Everybody has a moral right to health care!” Thanks for that, Bubba. The number of ventilators available after that declaration of folksy moral certitude is — you will not be surprised to learn — exactly the same as the number of ventilators available before that declaration of folksy moral certitude. If you want to know how to get more ventilators online, then you have to tune out the folksy moral certitude for a minute or two and do the hard work of sitting down and learning about the issue from somebody who knows something about it. Those somebodies are not generally found serving in Congress.
This is a big, complex, dynamic country. Its problems are big complex, and dynamic, too — they already were before the epidemic and the recession that it is sure to produce, and they will become more so as, in the words of one famous television subtitle, “Intensity intensifies.” If you think that the epidemic is disruptive, consider the pace at which our national fiscal position is deteriorating and then imagine a debt crisis layers on top of the viral one. (Not a certainty — a possibility.) Where I come from, that is some terrifying stuff. Probably is where you come from, too.
The United States of America cannot be governed by platitude. It cannot be led by platitude or by those who have almost nothing to offer beyond platitude.
Not well, anyway — and not forever.