What Orwell can teach Obama.

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May 1 2008 6:19 PM

Obama and Orwell

What the master Brit can teach Democrats about elitism.

George Orwell. Click image to expand.
George Orwell

Elitism has bedeviled American liberalism for the better part of four decades. It undermined the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, and now it's making mischief in the Obama campaign every bit as much as the omnipresence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The charge that liberal candidates don't connect with or understand the values and beliefs of regular Americans is embedded in old epithets like "limousine liberal," which I first heard aimed at New York Mayor John Lindsay in 1969. It was also at the core of "radical chic," the phrase made famous by Tom Wolfe in his savage 1970 account in New Yorkmagazine of a fund-raising party for the Black Panthers thrown by Leonard Bernstein and his wife in their Park Avenue duplex. (Wolfe didn't invent the term, but he gave it currency.)

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There's also an even older and more illuminating antecedent from across the Atlantic: the writings of George Orwell in England in the late 1930s, which describe a version of elitism that echoes powerfully in our current political battle.

Orwell's 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier is an account of his travels to England's industrial North, to the towns of Barnsley, Sheffield, and Wigan. Orwell—once a scholarship student at Eton—wrote of everything from conditions in the coal mines to the homes, diets, and health of desperately poor miners. He himself was a socialist who could also turn a critical eye on the British left, and in the middle of the book, he devoted a chapter to the failure of socialism to gain a foothold among the very citizens who would have seemed to benefit most from its rise. Substitute liberal or progressive for socialist, and the text often reads as though Orwell were covering American politics today.

"Everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, is a way out [of the worldwide depression,]" Orwell writes. "It would at least ensure our getting enough to eat, even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such an elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already." And yet, he adds, "the average thinking person nowadays is merely not a Socialist, he is actively hostile to Socialism. … Socialism … has about it something inherently distasteful—something that drives away the very people who ought to be flocking it its support."

One key to the movement's lack of popularity, Orwell argues, is its supporters. "As with the Christian religion," he writes, "the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents." Then he wheels out the heavy rhetorical artillery. The typical socialist, according to Orwell, "is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism, or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler, and often with vegetarian leanings … with a social position he has no intention of forfeiting. … One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." (Think "organic food lover," "militant nonsmoker," and "environmentalist with a private jet" for a more contemporary list.)

Orwell also rails against the condescension many on the left display toward those they profess to care most about. Describing a gathering of leftists in London, he says, "every person there, male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses."

Real working-class folks, he says, might be drawn toward a socialist future centered around family life, the pub, football, and local politics. But those who speak in its name, he says, have a snobbish condescension toward such quotidian pleasures—even condemning coffee and tea. "Reformers" urged the poor to eat healthier food—less sugar, more brown bread. And their audience balked. "Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like organs and wholemeal bread, or [raw carrots]?" Orwell asks. "Yes it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would rather starve than live on brown bread and more carrots … a millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits. An unemployed man doesn't."          

And so, Orwell ruefully concluded, the snobbish socialists succeeded in depleting their own ranks. "The ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business."

The perennial struggle of Democratic contenders to appeal to ordinary Americans seems very much of a piece with Orwell's sharp descriptions. Election after election, Democrats argue that once Joe and Jane Sixpack fully grasp the wisdom of the latest six-point college-loan program, or of an 800-page health-care scheme, they will come to wave the Democratic banner. And, sometimes, these voters do just that—provided that the candidate in question has demonstrated a sense that he or she is not treating them as the subject of an anthropological study. Bill Clinton had a full steamer trunk of domestic programs; he also was a product of Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law School. But his 18 years in the vineyards of Arkansas politics gave him the tools to compete for support on a more visceral level. Then there were Clinton's obvious tastes for earthly pleasures—from Big Macs to more intimate diversions—which made it very hard to label him as an aloof elitist.

For Democrats at the moment, it is no doubt exasperating to watch working-class voters choose candidates whose economic tastes run to comforting the comfortable. And it may be cold comfort to learn that such impulses are not confined to time and place. But if you want to court these voters in a way that will resonate with them, you could do a lot worse than heeding the cautionary words of George Orwell.

And Barack? Ix-nay on the egg-white omelets.

Jeff Greenfield is the senior political correspondent for CBS News.