In the Arena

Ignorance as Authenticity

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I was struck by this comment by a voter in today’s New York Times account of last night’s U.S. Senate debate in Delaware:

While Mr. Coons had broader range on issues and current events, he sometimes seemed mean-spirited. When Ms. O’Donnell asked whether a company he was connected to would benefit from the clean energy bill, he scoffed, “It was difficult for me to understand from her question what she was talking about.”

That could just serve to reinforce Ms. O’Donnell’s image, which has had deep resonance this election season — that of an ordinary person trying to bring common sense to Washington.

That appealed to Alexandra Gawel, 23, a sociology major at the university who has worked her way through college as a waitress.

“She is someone I can relate to,” Ms. Gawel said, outside the debate hall in the late afternoon. “She’s not had everything handed to her.”

This is a classic American myth, perpetrated by Hollywood, starting with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–and it’s a lovely fantasy. Mr. Smith was an inspired amateur. He followed the news and astonished his local oligarch puppet-master by actually reading the bills he was about to vote on, then making up his own mind. He was part of generation that took citizenship seriously and kept itself informed–even the “average” folks, our grandparents, who came home from work on the assembly line and read the evening newspaper (which actually had news in it, unlike the crapola sensationalism that passes for news on cable TV). I’d take a couple of average citizens like that in the Senate anytime, especially if they made the effort to learn the issues once they got there.

But Christine O’Donnell is not like that. She is attractive, to some, because she doesn’t know anything. She couldn’t name a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with, not even Roe v. Wade. There is no way she could ever be confused with a member of the elites; there is no way she could be confused with an above average high school student. Her ignorance, therefore, makes her authentic–the holy grail of latter-day American politics: she’s a real person, not like those phony politicians. In that sense, she–and the lifeboat filled with other Tea Party know-nothings–follow in the wake of our leading exemplar of ignorant authenticity, Sarah Palin (who seems every bit as unaware of public policy–she certainly never talks about it–as she was when a desperate and petulant John McCain chose her to be his running mate).

There is something profoundly diseased about a society that idolizes its ignoramuses and disdains its experts. It is a society that no longer takes itself seriously. This is not a complaint about the current Republican tide, by the way: that’s part of the natural flow of political life, a result of the economy and the President’s abstruse brand of politics. I’ll welcome the arrival in Washington of smart Republicans like Ohio’s Rob Portman; I won’t welcome an ideologue like Rand Paul, but at least he’s done some thinking about what constitutes good public policy (although his notion of such is puerile and ultimately fatal to a democracy). A businesswoman like Carly Fiorina certainly has the qualifications to be a Senator, even if you disagree with her politics.  Christine O’Donnell does not, nor does Sharron Angle, nor does Ron Johnson in Wisconsin; nor does Carl Paladino have the qualifications to be governor of New York.

But they are all certifiably non-elite. Steve Rattner, on the other hand, is a card-carrying member of the financial elites–and his story may help explain why the public has so little time for the Establishment these days. Rattner is a journalist turned investment banker, an Ivy Leaguer, a denizen of Manhattan’s happiest haunts and of summers on Martha’s Vineyard, vacation spot of choice for Democratic Presidents. He did a fine job as Barack Obama’s auto czar; the GM and Chrysler bailouts seem to be working brilliantly, saving thousands upon thousands of good American jobs. I know Steve pretty well; I’ve had dinner at his house; we’ve had good conversations; our kids have played together.

He also is lucky that he’s not going to jail. The Securities and Exchange Commission has fined him $5 million and banned him from finance, for a time, because he and his partners apparently attempted to bribe major pension funds in New York to invest with them. In addition to Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard, Rattner lives in Private Equity World, a particularly shady and opaque precinct of Wall Street, where gazillions have been made through leveraged buyouts that have caused nothing but pain in the middle-class neighborhoods of America. People like Steve have populated Administrations of both parties at the highest levels, especially in the Treasury Department (indeed, Rattner once hoped to be Treasury Secretary). From Bob Rubin to Hank Paulson, recent Presidents have turned to financiers who gained fame by making deals rather than by making products (the current Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, never was a Wall Street dealmaker, but he comes from that world). Their disastrous chicanery is part of the reason–a good part of the reason–why voters are rebelling against expertise this year.

It occurs to me that George W. Bush had the right idea the first time around, hiring Paul O’Neill, who came from the world of manufacturing, as his Treasury Secretary–and then, of course, he fired O’Neill, who couldn’t stand the irresponsibility of Bush’s economic policies.

I am not saying that Steve Rattner is directly to blame for Christine O’Donnell. But he is part of a generation of financiers, the most respected figures in our society, who have been disgraced utterly by their greed and shenanigans–and who have made the world safe for Mama Grizzlies. This is how a great power wanes. This is why Barack Obama’s next Treasury Secretary has to be a successful business executive with an unimpeachable record of creating jobs, not financial parlor tricks.