The Art of Condescension
From the Online Oxford English Dictionary, the second definition of condescend:
2. fig. To come or bend down, so far as a particular action is concerned, from one's position of dignity or pride; to stoop voluntarily and graciously . . .
It is hard to remember that condescension once had a positive political meaning. In the colonial and revolutionary era, it indicated the ability of someone of higher class to communicate with his inferiors by carefully lowering his demeanor in a way that suggested a meeting of spirits without suggesting equality. It was an art that upper class men prided themselves on and, for a time, was openly respected by their inferiors.
Jacksonian white male democracy tossed overt condescension out of political life. All white guys were equal and no politician should forget it. However a modified version slipped back in on the stump because most people wanted their presidents to be of the people but superior, too. So candidates ate barbecue, kissed babies, and otherwise recognized the equality of the voters, while trying to exude that certain something that evoked superiority and leadership.
Tree stumps gave way to stages, radio microphones, TV cameras, and YouTube, but this modified form of condescension—to demonstrate equality while somehow evoking superiority—remains a challenge for presidential candidates. All must condescend, and it seems possible that Barack Obama might fail to win the presidency not because he condescends, but because he does it badly while John McCain does it well. And Clinton? See below.
An example of McCain's artful condescension is his barbecue for reporters back in March. Now we all know that reporters are as low a class as there can be, and McCain showed his superiority when he sent reporters to the back of the bus (oops, that’s plane) when they denied him proper deference by reporting his questionable monetary connections.
But McCain knew that this could not remain the state of things. The reporters had to be made to feel that they had his confidence again. So he threw them a barbecue. The press felt so much better, and since they were there, McCain got a great story that reinforced his wider reputation as a Man who knows how to season his baby back ribs.
But effective condescension is not simply a matter of what to say or do; it is a matter of what not to say or do. And the first rule is—you are always on stage. Our Founders understood that. By the time of the revolution, George Washington was known for his self-control in all settings. His superiority at this won him the respect of his social peers and social inferiors. He rarely if ever misstepped. He knew that he was always on stage and that his reputation rested on playing his part superbly.
The second rule, which is particularly true today, is that when one condescends it must be with that most consummate sort of acting, in which the audience forgets that a performance is taking place. McCain probably really does like to barbecue. That made his act much easier.
A corollary to that rule is that one should not use a photo op to condescend unless one looks the part. John Kerry never should have gone hunting, even if he could “break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat”. It's not simply the skill, but the image of skill, that matters.
And Hillary Clinton. How did she go from the It Takes a Village schoolmarm to a candidate who has made a strong appeal to many working class voters? As this article shows, she has made here economic message truly the centerpiece of her campaign in a year in which people are scared.
Also, time has helped. While she stakes her claim to experience in part on her time in the White House, she has used the intervening years to redefine herself in a way that is congenial to her public personality. Instead of being the schoolmarm b-tch who knows more than you do, she is now the tough b-tch who will fight for you.
This was smart. She wasn’t going to get rid of the “B” image, so to a far greater extent that I would have thought possible, she has turned it to her advantage. She has distanced herself from the most debilitating aspects of her former image as a feminist know-it-all, demonstrated her martial leadership, and constantly acknowledged the concerns of her people. That is a time-tested way to condescend effectively.
So can Obama win? Sure. Here’s my advice, for whatever its worth. First, forget bowling. It wasn’t a Dukakis tank moment, but most of the time presidential candidates should be seen doing things well or not be seen doing things at all.
Second, and much more seriously, keep on message about reconciliation. That’s an unusual path for a presidential candidate to take, and it does distinguish him in a manner that evokes superiority.
Third, he needs to follow Clinton and show that he really will fight for a better economy. There is no necessary contradiction between that and a new politics.
Finally, he should not try to be what he cannot pretend to be. He’s never going to be one of the guys or gals in the diner. That’s not his sort of condescension. But millions of guys and gals in those diners really want a better politics. He needs to remember—or at least to artfully show—that what he is fighting for is their wisdom and their dreams and not just his.
Rick Shenkman - 5/5/2008
It's always the perception that counts not the reality.
You've stated things nicely!
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