One effect of the long, painful, millennial downturn—from which we may now be emerging—has been the rise of the virtuous Democrat at the expense of the overachieving one.
Jack Shafer, in Slate (Shafer is a lefty holier-than-thou type), characterized the recent debut of a column by Tina Brown (an icon of overachievement) in the Washington Post as a lament for the spent forces of the nineties. Shafer was trying to make a Zeitgeist point: Tina = Bill Clinton = excess + superficiality. But it was as much an economic one.
In an age of diminished expectations—scant jobs, deficits, Kozlowski, Martha, AOL Time Warner—success, and its pretenders, are not cool. Money, notoriety, and brand are suspect, the lack of these things righteous.
That same week, Philadelphia magazine, in a mocking profile of the journalist Jake Tapper (Tapper, who was recently made a correspondent for ABC News, came to prominence because he once dated Monica Lewinsky and publicized the fact), declared, “Ambition in the service of something noble is a beautiful thing. Ambition in the service of oneself is an ugly sight.”
And this from a book reviewer in the New York Observer: “By relentlessly equating adulthood with professional success,” the author of a new book about the media “degrades the concept of human maturity.” (I am the author of that book.)
It’s an ancillary action in the culture wars: not right versus left, but boomers versus busters.
It’s an intra-liberal split. On one side, there’s Clintonian money—financial, technology, media money—with its global, free-market, entrepreneurial, smarty-pants ethos. On the other side, there are the new Dean Democrats, with an ethic of exurban virtue, antiwar righteousness, blogger wherewithal, and downwardly mobile chic (the Confederate-flag boys). The busters are in the driver’s seat. Indeed, the three-year recession has left the liberals who benefited from the Clinton boom in something approaching dubious moral circumstances.
Howard Dean, who grew up in Manhattan on the Upper East Side and went to Yale, is running an anti-yuppie campaign as much as an antiwar campaign. It’s not all that dissimilar, as it happens, to the anti-yuppie campaign Yale and Harvard-M.B.A. alum George Bush ran the last time around.
Bush’s yuppie target was Al Gore (Bush himself almost became John McCain’s yuppie target). Of course, his real yuppie target was Bill Clinton, the greatest yuppie (I want what I want) of them all.
Dean’s prime yuppie targets have been John Kerry (he is from a more Waspy and patrician mold, but is upwardly mobile all the same) and John Edwards, the millionaire tort lawyer (who desperately tries to assert his populist background but who cannot repudiate his obvious yuppie self), but Clinton is necessarily a target, too. It’s a style issue. Glitz, glam, sexiness are out.
Among Dean’s bona fides are that he’s a doctor, which once was the ultimate upwardly mobile profession but which has become an embittered and regulated one, and that he’s not from Washington but from a small (read nonelitist, nonoverachiever) state. Like Bush, who assembled a nonurban, nonsmarty coalition, Dean has put together a large following of supporters remote from traditional power centers (he’s out of place in Washington, on Wall Street, and in Hollywood). Bush took his strength from the religious right; Dean takes his from the antiwar left.
Dean’s recent evocation of the Confederate-flag-waver as somehow potentially in his camp was probably not so much to get that vote but a rhetorical flourish with which to further distance himself from the people—the snobbish urban Establishment—who would most look down upon this low-class specimen.
Likewise, Bush’s unkosher appearance at the retrograde Bob Jones University was among the jujitsu tactics that resulted in making John McCain seem like the yuppie guy—the candidate of the shocked, shocked and hoity-toity.
Of course, all of this does seem to be something of a mirror trick. Dean and Bush are classic examples of people whose privileged education and background have given them perfectly customized, yuppified lifestyles (the Vermont thing, the ranch thing). And yet somehow they do seem set apart from their achieving (read superficial and narcissistic) counterparts.
Gore, for sure, was in it for himself—to get to the top of the class.
Kerry and Edwards are obvious career builders—it’s for their greater glory.
Whereas Bush and Dean are, plausibly, in service to something other than their careers.
Bush has turned out to be (surprisingly) a fairly dedicated steward of the religious right. He’s even come to be quite credible in the role—he’s no party boy (anymore). He represents a cause. He is, frighteningly, a believer.
Dean, too, is engaged in a larger movement. The antiwar cause is, on the left, as redolent as the fundamentalist cause on the right. Dean’s anger—a dubious political asset—is real.
The notable thing is that being closely identified with interest groups and specific sets of beliefs, personalizing a cause, is not usually the way to win an American presidential election.
Between a candidate who represents principles and a candidate who represents aspirations, we, of course, invariably choose the candidate who represents aspirations. And these are almost always material aspirations.
Arguably, the only successful presidential candidate of the entire twentieth century who represented doctrinaire principles was Ronald Reagan, who also managed to represent (movingly, millions felt) all sorts of rosy aspirations. It was a triumph of packaging: Reagan suggested optimism and material improvement, his opponents (Carter and Mondale) did not.
In fact, the Republicans, under Reagan, came up with a formula that has allowed them to tout both principles and aspirations: tax cuts. They found they could consistently advance a conservative agenda by offering a money-back guarantee.
Strict morality existed side-by-side with a great financial free-for-all. Indeed, a Reagan-administration irony is that it created the culture of deregulation and financial restructuring and entrepreneurial capitalism and deficit-financed liquidity that produced the amoral yuppie class that now everyone of principle (on the right as well as the left) stands against—and of which Bill Clinton became the finest symbol and greatest success story.
Clinton surely ranks with Reagan and FDR as among the most successful aspirational presidents.
It’s the economy, stupid was just about as pure a statement of the American consensus as you are likely to get.
What’s more, the Clinton administration managed to capture the business and money class (long a Republican outpost) for the Democrats. The rising stock market and technological innovation and great gains in productivity and entrepreneurial can-doism were integrally wrapped up with brains and savviness and youth and new cultural tolerance and global thinking. Liberalism and yuppiedom went hand in hand.
You would have thought that this would have defined a fine future for the Democrats—they owned the New Economy.
But then there was the long Clinton mess—giving amorality a bad name. Then Al Gore, who was aspirational but not inspirational (something of a feat). Then Bush. Then the bust. And 9/11. Anyway, yuppiedom got dealt a severe blow.
It’s going to be an uphill battle for any Democratic candidate to be able to say the one thing you pretty much have to believably say to get elected president of the United States: More people will make more money by voting for me than for the other guy. And lots of people will make a lot more money than they ever dreamed of.
But the problem for the Democrats is not just that the economy is going in Bush’s direction. There is also the sense that the Democrats will forgo that greatest of all political selling propositions—prosperity and a rising tide—because the emerging core of the party may fundamentally eschew more-money-for-me-ism.
The psychological if not ideological Marxism of the left wing of the party is still instinctively partial to the notion that where there is profit there is loss. (Tina Brown exists at some better person’s expense. Jake Tapper’s ambition mauls other, more self-effacing newsmen.)
The Slick Willy, DLC, Bob Rubin, problem-solving, junk-food-craving, Al Gore–Internet–inventing, Kennedy-esque, big economic tent that produced the longest expansion in history has become a discredited chapter. An embarrassment in many ways.
The Nader-istic, no fun, unslick, unmodern, unsexy, moralistic, pissed-off little guy who may bring rectitude back but who sure isn’t going to make anybody rich is on the march.
The torrents of Bush red ink, along with the $87 billion in climbing war costs, and now the onrushing mutual-fund debacle (potentially bigger than the S&L calamity), surely means that the Bushies aren’t going to get a free pass on the economy—they’ve got a glaring vulnerability. But the economic argument requires a different kind of pitchman than the Democrats seem to be ready to nominate.
It’s even likely that as the Bush economy shows modest improvement, the cultural battleground between Clintonites and the new virtuous Democratic core will get more intense. The anti-yuppies, with their deep sense of cultural grievance, will want to establish their power base before the black Town Cars are out in force again. The virtuous, when they get ahold of something, don’t let it go so easily (indeed, the right wing dug in and captured the Republican Party).
So the war will be the Democrats’ issue. Of course, the Bushies may be so stubborn and messianic and self-destructive about their commitment to going the distance in Iraq that the antiwar message wins. But pretty damn unlikely (unlikely that they’ll be that dumb, and unlikely, under any circumstances, that an antiwar message wins).
Rather, it’s the prospect of another thousand or two in the Dow that wins this. It’s back to the nineties. It’s always back to the nineties—if you can only find your way.