By E.J. Dionne
WASHINGTON — In democracies, all political factions run against an elite. Since the New Deal, Democrats have cast themselves against the financial and business elite. Since the 1960s, Republicans have thrashed the cultural and intellectual elite.
Over the weekend, the moneyed class became much more vulnerable. The foolishness of our financial geniuses now threatens to bring economic sorrow to Main Street. Franklin Roosevelt's 1936 attack on "the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties" never sounded so up to date.
Americans don't mind wealthy and even rapacious capitalists as long as they deliver the goods to everyone else. But when the big boys drag everyone else down, Americans rise up in righteous anger. The New Deal political alignment endured for decades because the financial elites were so profoundly discredited by the Great Depression. The New Deal coalition dissolved only when prosperity began to seem durable and only after the GOP discovered the joys of baiting Hollywood, the media and the academy.
There is always something slightly phony about anti-elitist politics. Plenty of investment bankers are Democrats, and Republican politicians who claim to speak for devoutly religious cultural conservatives are usually far removed from the world (and the values) of those whose votes they court and whose resentments they stoke.
But the captains of John McCain's campaign figured they might wring one more election victory out of the culture war. They ridiculed Barack Obama as the celebrity candidate loved by Europeans — Europe is always in the elitist camp — and harped on his unfortunate comments, ripped out of context, about "bitter" voters who "cling to guns or religion."
For good measure, McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. A religious and proudly gun-toting mom, Palin has turned expertise itself into a badge of elitism, proclaiming pleasure in her lack of a "big fat resume" that "shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment."
But anti-Washington politics is itself rooted in the interests of the financial elite. When the private economy goes haywire, it is always the federal government that has to step in. When those whom Teddy Roosevelt called "malefactors of great wealth" get out of hand, Washington is the only town with the authority to hold their power in check.
Therefore, the party of the business elite has always pursued its interests behind slogans proclaiming a war on Washington and its "bureaucrats" — and never mind that a little more regulation might have prevented the subprime-mortgage-buying, short-term-profit-maximizing Wall Streeters from wrecking the economy.
All of a sudden, the culture war seems entirely beside the point, an unaffordable luxury in a time of economic turmoil. What politicians actually believe about the economy, what fixes they propose, whether they side with the wealthy few or the hurting many — these become the stuff of elections, the reasons behind people's votes.
And nothing more exposes the hypocrisy of financial elites riding the coattails of those who revere small-town religious values than a downturn that highlights the vast gulf in power between the two key components of the conservative coalition. Even cultural conservatives will start to notice that McCain's tax policies are geared toward the wealthy investing class and Obama's toward the paycheck crowd. Even the most ardent friends of business have begun to argue that a re-engagement with sensible regulation is essential to restoring capitalism's health.
For some time, McCain's strategists figured they could deflect attention from the big issues by turning Palin into a country-and-western celebrity and launching so many ill-founded attacks on Obama that the truth would never catch up. The approach of the McCain strategists reflected a low opinion of average voters and some Obama supporters began worrying they might be right.
But those so-called average voters understand the difference between low- and high-stakes elections. They develop a reasonably good sense of who is telling the truth and who is not. And though it sometimes takes a while — and a shock like this week's economic news — these voters almost always turn on politicians who manipulate cultural symbols by way of escaping the consequences of their policies.
In 1936, FDR argued that "private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise." He insisted that "freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place."
The stakes in this year's election went way up this week. The days of Paris, Britney, and the exploitation of divisions around race, gender and religion are over.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.