Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cosmpolitans v. Populists, 2008 Election

A few posts back, I proposed a new way of understanding the fundamental cleavages in American politics, and that we were moving away from the convenctional liberal/conservative splite to something I describe as a cosmopolitan/populist split.

Like any characterization, it will obscure much that is important--you will find for instance, environmnetalists and anti-environmentalists in both camps. And social issues confound things even more. However, the issue is whether the simplification helps understand something that is really happening. And I want to suggest that at this time, my characterization is at least as useful as the old liberal/conservative characterization.

If we look at 2008, we might find some interesting ways the cosmopolitan/populist can help us understand the Presidential election.

In terms of issues, we have a fully committed cosmopolitan in the person of John McCain. On just about every issue, he stands for more integration of the United States with the rest of the world. Indeed, his troubles in some conservative quarters have a lot more to do with his cosmopolitanism than any so-called liberalism. His position on immigration is the most obvious example. But he is also committed to free trade. We see it in his background as well--he was born on a US installation in Panama.

Obama, by contrast, presents a less clear picture. In terms of style, and certainly in terms of his background, he's more cosmpolitan than McCain. His appeal has been to cosmopolitans, and he's struggled mightily to appeal to populists. The whole clinging to guns and religion dust up shows that he does not understand who the populists are, and it might show that he does not take them seriously. Yet he's a declared skeptic regarding free trade. And the Rev. Wright is clearly a populist as well, though of a different sort. If he can find a way of using that kind of rhetoric--championing those who feel left out--in a broad, post racial way, he'll be very tough to beat. If he can somehow manage to articulate populist anger, he'll win. But it will be tough. Bill Clinton was a master, but no other Democrat not named Clinton has ever managed to be persuasive.

Clinton was the populist candidate. Her defeat was in no way however a defeat of populism. Indeed, what we'll see is two candidates working hard to capture the populist vote. At this point, McCain sounds the more convincing populist, but it remains to be seen if he can continue to do so.

I think it will be tough. We're not seeing any tangible benefits from Iraq. And, in many ways, Democrats have more experience managing this kind of problem than the Republicans do. McCain's speech today championing small business and criticizing big business in the context of his economic policies probably won't convince many populists that he understands their issues. And in the end, McCain's style is that of a cosmopolitan. His military background may address an important element of American anxiety, but if the economy remains troubled over the summer, and he remains committed to maintaining current troop strength in Iraq, much of that will erode. Especially if Obama is able to address the anxiety felt by many Americans and give them reason to hope.