< The Elite Beat

Transcript

Friday, May 09, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
A big part of Hillary Clinton's pitch to the public in recent weeks has involved depicting Barack Obama as an elitist, out of touch with the blue-collar everyday voter. As the campaign winds down, it's blazed a trail through countless bowling alleys, bars and diners. But in this effort to be down-homier-than-thou, Clinton may have gone a step too far last weekend on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos asked Clinton if she could name one economist who supported her plan for a gas tax suspension. She responded with the E-bomb.
[CLIP]
HILLARY CLINTON:
Well, you know, George, I think we've been for the last seven years seeing a tremendous amount of government power and elite opinion basically behind policies that haven't worked well for the middle class and hardworking Americans.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at UC Berkeley's School of Information. Geoff, welcome back to the show.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG:
Oh, well, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So you noted recently on Fresh Air that "elite" can mean many things.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG:
Well, sure. There's one sense of the word where it refers just to the best of a group, the cream of the crop, and nobody has any problem with that, when we talk about elite fighting forces or elite pole vaulters and things like that.

There's another use of the word where it refers to the ruling class, the leaders of the financial world and so forth. That's the sense that it has in the title of C. Wright Mills' famous book from the 1950s, The Power Elite.

And there's a third sense – all of these are connected – where it refers to the bon ton, as we used to say, high society, for those who remember Duffy's Tavern, the old 1940s radio show. It used to begin with the manager of the tavern saying -
[CLIP]
ARCHIE THE TAVERN MANAGER:
Hello. Duffy's Tavern, where the elite meet to eat, Archie, the genial manager, speaking.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] And yet Archie was aspiring to the very same kind of elitism that Dan Quayle condemned when he condemned sitcom character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG:
Well, Quayle launched that attack in 1992, a bit before the presidential elections in that year, and he really combined two senses of elite. On the one hand, he was thinking about the elite media, the academics and so on and so forth, but there was also an implication that these people were snooty and out of touch with other people. And those two senses began to blur at that point.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Spiro Agnew, Nixon's vice-president, made a big deal of the media elite. I guess it started with Spiro Agnew, but it's really gained steam on the Fox Cable News network.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG:
Right. "Elite" used to be used in America, and it's still used in Britain, with primary reference to the people with economic, military and political power. So if you look at the British press, and this is left, right or center, you'll see phrases like "corporate elite," "economic elite," "military elite" outnumbering phrases like "media elite."

In America, though it used to be that way, it's now shifted so that phrases like "media elite" and "Hollywood elite" are more frequent in the media. Fox News in particular, you'll see that the "media elite" outnumbers some of those other phrases put together by 40 to 1. [BROOKE LAUGHS]

But it's even the case on CNN that people talk about the media elite now more than they talk about the financial or corporate elite. So the word's kind of shifted its meaning. It no longer refers simply to those who actually wield power but rather what's alleged to be positions of cultural authority. Those are the people that the word singles out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Geoff, thank you very much.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG:
Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Dr. Drew Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory University and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Drew, welcome to the show.
DREW WESTEN:
Thanks for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Is it possible that Democrats are so easily tarred with the E-brush because many of them simply are? – not that Republicans aren't.
DREW WESTEN:
[LAUGHS] Well, you know, it's funny, because when you get to the level of presidential politics or even senate or congressional politics, you pretty much have to be elite to think that you should be in that bunch.

So on both sides of the aisle it's pretty hard to be a regular kind of person and really be in that office.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And, as you've noted, if this elitism narrative successfully takes hold, that's all it takes to lose an election.
DREW WESTEN:
That's right. And the reason is that if you look at 40 years of electoral data, what you find is that the best predictors of voting behavior, the two most important are people's feelings towards the parties and their values or principles and their gut-level feelings towards the candidates.

So if one party is presenting itself as the party of values and the other side is out of touch with the values of the people and is also tarring the candidate of the other side with the brand of "this person's elite and out of touch," they've essentially got them pretty well because they've hit the two best predictors of voting behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So how do politicians counter these attempts to brand them as elitist?
DREW WESTEN:
Bill Clinton was a good example of someone who was fighting the elitist message in 1992. And he was actually behind – he was in third place in the polls behind Ross Perot and George H. W. Bush, until he came out with the biographical ad, The Man from Hope.
[CLIP]
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BILL CINTON:
I was born in a little town called Hope, Arkansas three months after my father died. I remember that old two-story house where I lived with my grandparents. They had very limited incomes.
[END CLIP]
DREW WESTEN:
The best defense is a good offense, is to get something out there fast about your own biography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Obviously, Hillary Clinton recently has made a serious attempt to brand Barack Obama as an elitist and herself as a regular Josephine. Does her strategy resemble Bill's 1992 master stroke?
DREW WESTEN:
No. [LAUGHS] In some ways it more resembles George W. Bush's master strokes against both of his rivals in trying to brand them as elitists. It's really playing with fire as a Democrat to try to brand a fellow Democrat as elitist, because in many ways it's reinforcing the Republican branding of the Democrats.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But has she been successful?
DREW WESTEN:
Oh, absolutely. And if you look at her win in Pennsylvania, she clearly took some comments that he had made that were a misstep from him and ran with them effectively, and then started to retell the story of herself as, you know, Rosie the Riveter or, as you were saying, [LAUGHS], as an everyday Josephine.

And in Pennsylvania, I think his counterstrategies weren't very strong. The bowling fiasco, when he, you know, bowled a 37, compare that to what he did for North Carolina and Indiana, where instead he was really on his home turf playing basketball. And it's a much more masculine sport that's going to appeal much more to -
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
NBA dads?
DREW WESTEN:
[LAUGHS] NBA dads, exactly. You know, it's truer to them. And that's one of the other things that's just so important in politics is when as soon as candidates start doing photo-ops that don't look like it's them, it signals something other than honesty. And there's only so far you can push a narrative that isn't true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You give us way too much credit, I think. I mean, everybody seemed to have bought George Bush's narrative as having grown up in the wilds of Texas.
DREW WESTEN:
Neither Gore nor Kerry ever said, you know, who is this guy pretending to be Everyman, to be, you know, the average Joe and to have a ranch? He just bought that ranch a year and a half before he started running for president. He went to an elite prep school, Andover. He then went to Yale. He then went to Harvard Business School. This guy's a guy who's just like you? I don't think so.

Had the Democrats repeatedly attacked him for his story and offered a counter-story, it probably would have stopped him from being able to get away with the, you know, I'm just like you, drinking the beer. He obviously didn't drink the beer because he was on the wagon. But -
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I guess there's nothing less elitist than being on the wagon.
DREW WESTEN:
[LAUGHS] Actually, it probably helped him in some ways. That was real, and certainly having the story about how, you know, I once was lost and now am found appealed to an awful lot of people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Dr. Drew Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory University, and his book is called The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Thank you very much.
DREW WESTEN:
Thank you.