The New Two Americas And The Edwards Zone
Yesterday brought some news that was surely welcome in Democratic circles. When last heard from, former senator and 2004 vice-presidential candidate John Edwards was ready to visit the campuses of America, starting next Monday at Hofstra University, and continuing to Salem State in Massachusetts and the University of Illinois, to lecture students and whoever else might be interested about his tried-and-true theme of “two Americas;” what he had learned on the campaign trail; and other odds and ends that might strike his fancy. He was even to debate Karl Rove on September 26 in Buffalo.
But, following an announcement that the Salem State events (which was to be with his wife Elizabeth) had been cancelled, Edwards has now stated through his agent, to the disappointment of CSPAN junkies and bloggers everywhere, that he will not make the above appearances and, indeed, that his schedule will remain empty until after Election Day, explaining:
Nothing is more important than electing Barack Obama and Joe Biden. I don’t want my appearance at these events to be a distraction from the important issues of the election, or from the important purpose of these meetings.
The last phrase is a bit unclear, but Edwards seems to be suggesting that he expects that he can simply appear in front of any audience in the country, eight weeks from now, and deliver his populist message of old as if the Rielle Hunter scandal had never happened. He may be disappointed, and not just because there have been some hints that one or another of the major general-interest magazines is contemplating an article on the scandal.
When Edwards last was appearing in public, the term “two Americas” was being treated by the mainstream media in the way he defined it – one rich and privileged (read: Republican Party), the other poor and downtrodden (read: Democrats and trial lawyers), in the most fire-breathing tradition of Tom Watson or Melvin Belli.
But now Edwards’ rhetoric, and the variations upon it played by Sen. Hillary Clinton after he withdrew from the race, seem almost as dated as a copy of Coin’s Financial School. The last seven days have seen the emergence of a new version of “two Americas.”
One America consists, more or less, of Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Hamptons, Georgetown, some larger college communities like Ann Arbor and Madison, and portions of Beverly Hills and Malibu. In this America, Gov. Sarah Palin and her family are figures of ridicule and their very emergence on the national scene is a source of bewilderment. (See www.huffingtonpost.com, passim.)
The other America is bordered by the communities of Lubec, Maine to the east; Naalehu, Hawaii to the south; and, rather fittingly, Adak in the Aleutian Islands to the west and Barrow, Alaska to the north. (Can I be that sure about Naalehu, in one of Sen. Barack Obama’s several native states? I think so. This week, not long after Gov. Palin’s speech, I talked with a counterculture type, of the sort found in abundance on the Big Island, who wasn’t hesitant about declaring herself a citizen of this America.) It is a place where Gov. Palin and her family are admired, respected, and even loved. Obama and, especially, Sen. Joe Biden, a man who has campaigned by the side of a lot of officeholders around the country over the years, are both well aware that it exists, though it may take some time for everyone in their organizations to catch on.
In the course of a week, as poll data is starting to show, Gov. Palin, simply by being herself, has come quite a way toward reassembling the “New American Majority” that Kevin Phillips wrote about so many years ago, long before his career settled down into churning out one anti-Bush book per year and making the rounds of left-wing internet talkshows. Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson has started to realize which way the wind is blowing, and Paul Krugman at the New York Times, discussing the shift in the electoral temper, invokes Rick Perlstein’s Franklins/Orthogonians dichotomy from Nixonland. (Perlstein, meanwhile, discusses this week’s events here.)
Speaking of Nixonland, Sam Tanenhaus, author of the acclaimed biography Whittaker Chambers and editor of both the New York Times’ “Week In Review” and book-review sections, reviews it (and Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew) at The New Republic this week. His discussion of Frank’s book is a little on the perfunctory side – understandably so, since The Wrecking Crew is, for all its fury and fire-breathing, a pretty one-sided and slightly cartoonish treatment of the lobbying culture, predicated on the idea that every K Streeter is 100% committed to eternal GOP rule.
However, Tanenhaus not only provides a very acute and insightful assessment of Nixonland but uses the book as a jumping-off point for a long, carefully considered examination of President Nixon’s relationship with the conservative movement of his time; how his policies related to the New Deal/Great Society tradition, the development of neoconservative and neoliberal thought in the Nixon years (with special attention to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s role in urban policy); and what the events of those years can tell us now, where the future of the Republican party and conservatism is concerned. It’s one of the rare book reviews that repay repeated readings.