Recently, I have been reading several things that make me think about Richard M. Nixon, the uses of power, and the politics of resentment.
If you know anything about Nixon’s college years, you know that there was a group of well-heeled upper-class types on the Whittier College campus known as the Franklins. Nixon would have never been accepted as part of this group, coming as he did from a working-class background. So he created an alternate group – the Orthogonians. Throughout his life Nixon set himself in opposition to the elites, even if – nay, especially if – they were from his own party. He was, if it is possible to be such a thing, the consummate outsider. At the height of his power, at a point when he was quite literally the single most powerful person the world had known up to that point, he used that power in ways both subtle and obvious to take (in his opinion) the elites down a peg.
He wasn’t the first outsider President; his immediate predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was also from the wrong side of the tracks. LBJ grew up in a formerly stable family that had fallen on hard times. Like Nixon, he could not afford to go to a major university (Nixon went to the local college; LBJ went just down the road to what was then a teachers’ college and is now Texas State University – San Marcos), and like Nixon, he was all too willing to believe that his humble origins were the subject of scorn and mockery by the wealthier, the smarter, the better-connected.
In both cases, perhaps there was a kernel of truth to the fear. Robert Caro speaks of the Kennedy loyalists referring to LBJ (though never, to be sure, after the assassination) as “Rufus Cornpone.” Film critic Pauline Kael was famously lambasted for elitism after expressing surprise at Nixon’s victory since “no one I know voted for him.” And hey, everyone on the political spectrum from George Wallace to Occupy Wall Street finds “the elite” to be a suitable target for opprobrium. Where it gets dangerous is when Populism – an honest political movement, and one with honorable intentions and goals – crosses a line into what might be termed “elitism of the lowbrow.” When that happens, knowledge and expertise are themselves suspect, since they come from experts. (See this recent article in MacLean’s for a Canadian take on the situation.)
There more coming here, though I’m not quite sure what yet. I suspect it will have to do with feeling an outsider (something I know all too well) and what counts as acceptable prejudice (see this article for more, but don’t read the comments).