Kathleen Parker has a troubling column about her visit to an impoverished South Carolina school district. She writes about an incident during lunch at a local restaurant with the local school superintendent:
Rogers' blue eyes betray battle fatigue and tear up easily as he talks. He says he can take the grief from folks who don't see why he gets so worked up, but he can't fathom how good people can turn their backs on children. He gets plenty of grief.
At the Charcoal Grill over a fried chicken buffet, a fellow at the next table calls out: "Hey, you in good with Nancy Pelosi? I hear she's got $30 million to save a mouse." (He was referring to funds for wetlands maintenance that would benefit, among other things, the salt marsh harvest mouse.)
Another jovial neighbor notices the wedding ring on Assistant Superintendent Polly Elkins' finger and says: "Hey, does Obama know you got all them diamonds?"
The good-natured ribbing locals directed at the superintendent represents the kind of lowbrow conservatism that is weighing down Republicans today. These locals might be very nice, decent people, but it appears that they've swallowed a kind of sound bite conservatism that makes conservatives come off as heartless buffoons.
I count many conservatives among my friends (I don't know what to call myself anymore) and it has been my personal experience that, as a group, the conservatives I've known have generally been kinder, more charitable people, than the liberals that I've known. I'm not sure why that is. I could speculate, but perhaps I'll get into that some other time.
Individually, the conservatives in my world have tended to be far more tolerant and less crassly judgmental than the crude public face of talk radio (and blogger) conservatism would suggest. Maybe that is because the folks I know are better educated and more varied in their personal experiences. They see the world as a complicated place. Almost all of them are religious, but none of them are fundamentalist. In that sense, they may not be quite representative of conservatism as a whole, but I believe they represent a substantial subset of the movement. But, they are much more like Brooks, Parker, Frum, Dreher and even Sullivan, than they are like Hannity, Coulter and Limbaugh.
Many of these folks devote an enormous amount of time to charitable endeavors—working in food pantries, staying up all night to staff homeless shelters, using up their vacation time building homes in impoverished American communities and shelters in South America. These conservatives exude a deep down decency that is, sadly, overshadowed by the small-minded, hardhearted tone that has come to dominate conservative politics in recent years.
Until I began to blog, I was rarely tempted to sink to the kind of course expression that characterizes lowbrow politics. This sort of inflamed expression goes right to the emotional brain, largely bypassing the higher cortical processing that delays and tempers our reactions. In style, it reminds me of adolescent male bravado with its disdain for nuance and complexity and preference for mocking the opponent, scoring points with the cutting remarks.
Liberals can certainly be guilty of the same thing and I've been guilty of it too, but conservatives have relied so heavily on lowbrow appeal, that they have badly tarnished the reputation of conservatism as a whole—well beyond the damage associated with the dismal performance of the Bush administration. They have turned a dispute about ideas into a question of character and they have been, increasingly, on the losing end of that dispute.
Along the way, they had a jolly good time ridiculing rational processing and nuance—portraying the opposition as waffling, weak and ineffectual. Obviously, that tactic won't work with Obama, so the lowbrows have switched to suggesting that there is something deeply sinister about the president.
But what they fail to fully grasp is that America has been stunned by the consequences of low-brow politics, both internationally and domestically. Americans don't see the cure for what ails us as more of the same thing that got us into this mess. That's why Obama's "change" rhetoric resonates with so many people. Demeaning that wish for change, making smug wisecracks about the salt marsh harvest mouse or hyperventilating over Obama's citizenship might still engage the lowbrow wing of the party, but most Americans are far more concerned that the president is wrestling with huge problems he inherited from his predecessors.
To be sure, serious people have serious disagreements about how we should proceed, but the lowbrows are contributing nothing useful to the debate. Their relentless ad hominem attacks only serve to alienate reasonable people while further tarnishing the conservative reputation. Few Americans care that the president's middle name is Hussein or even that he is a liberal. Instead, they are hoping that Obama will do enough things right to successfully steer the nation through a perilous time. And, I think... I hope... that, that notwithstanding the Santelli rant, Americans today believe that less lowbrow jeering and more frontal cortex will help.
Perhaps I'm being excessively wishful in my thinking, but I believe that after a decade of partying, more and more Americans want the adolescents in the room to pipe down so that the adults can talk.
Too many still don't get it.