Barack Obama, the Angry Left and the politics of intellectual contempt

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By JAMES TARANTO Last week Boston Globe columnist Renee Loth described the election of Scott Brown as "a collective primal scream." It's an old trope, reminiscent of the late Peter Jennings's classic declaration after the 1994 election:

Some thoughts on those angry voters. Ask parents of any 2-year-old and they can tell you about those temper tantrums: the stomping feet, the rolling eyes, the screaming. It's clear that the anger controls the child and not the other way around. It's the job of the parent to teach the child to control the anger and channel it in a positive way. Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled 2-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week. . . . Parenting and governing don't have to be dirty words: the nation can't be run by an angry 2-year-old. Echoing this view of the voters as angry, unreasoning and immature is Time's Joe Klein, who in the headline of a blog post describes Americans as "Too Dumb to Thrive":

Absolutely amazing poll results from CNN today about the $787 [sic] stimulus package: nearly three out of four Americans think the money has been wasted. On second thought, they may be right: it's been wasted on them. . . . This is yet further evidence that Americans are flagrantly ill-informed...and, for those watching Fox News, misinformed. It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don't make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you're a nation of dodos. Hey, wait! Didn't this nation of dodos elect Barack Obama not 15 months ago? Why yes it did, and Pete Wehner digs into Klein's archives to find that back then the Time scribe had a much higher opinion of his fellow Americans:

Klein is the same fellow who, in the aftermath of Obama's victory, said of America: "It may no longer be as dominant, economically or diplomatically, as it once was. But it is younger, more optimistic, less cynical. It is a country that retains its ability to startle the world--and in a good way, with our freedom." And who wrote, after Obama was sworn in as president, that his ascension to power "could force everyone to argue more carefully, to think twice before casting aspersions." It turns out the Wehner trick works with other commentators too. Here's the New York Times's Charles Blow reacting to the Massachusetts special election:

Welcome to the mob: an angry, wounded electorate, riled by recession, careening across the political spectrum, still craving change, nursing a bloodlust. . . . It seems as if Obama and the Democrats made the mistake of believing that a heart once won was forever won, that people would be patient, and that the mob would accept their reasoning for lack of results. They were wrong. The mob is fickle. And it's back with a vengeance. Here was Blow on May 23, 2009:

In 1984, Ronald Reagan won every Northeastern state. Since then, the leadership of the G.O.P. has systematically shed its idealists in favor of ideologues, reducing itself to the current Cheney-Limbaugh illusionati whose strategy is to exploit faith and ignorance by fanning fear and hatred. But, Northeasterners are not so easily duped. Voters there tend to be wealthier, better educated, less religious and more progressive than those in other regions. Is it even possible that Massachusetts--the quintessential Northeastern state--underwent such a transformation of attitudes in a scant eight months? Is there any way the American electorate could have been as smart as Klein thought in 2008-09 and as stupid as he thinks now? Or are these guys the ones who are fickle, angry, unreasoning and immature?

You won't find many politicians directly casting aspersions on the voters the way these angry pundits do. But this politics of contempt is of a piece with what one might call the Obama administration's politics of condescension. The New York Times quotes White House aide David Axelrod, who argued on "This Week" that Congress should ignore the voters' clear rejection of ObamaCare:

With House and Senate leaders trying to figure out how to proceed legislatively, Mr. Axelrod also issued a warning to Democrats who were reconsidering their support for the health care measure. "As a political matter, the foolish thing to do would be for anybody else who supported this to walk away from it," he said. He added, "The underlying elements of it are popular and important, and people will never know what's in that bill until we pass it, the president signs it and they have a whole new range of protections they never had before." "People will never know" is gentler than "a nation of dodos," but the underlying message isn't that different. Axelrod, speaking of the president, tells the Washington Post: "This is someone who in law school worked with [Harvard professor] Larry Tribe on a paper on the legal implications of Einstein's theory of relativity." That's got to be a joke, but the message is clear: President Obama and his men are a lot smarter than the average voter.

It is likely that this is true. Shockingly, half of all Americans have IQs below the median. But intelligence is not the same thing as wisdom or sense. Very intelligent people have been known to advance very compelling arguments on behalf of very bad ideas.

What's more, there is a particular type of stupidity to which intelligent people are uniquely prone: intellectual snobbery, or the tendency to cultivate an attitude of contempt toward those who are not as bright. This may appeal to New York Times readers or voters in, say, Hyde Park--that is, to people who think they're better than everyone else too. But it may prove Barack Obama's undoing as a national politician.