Whatever happened to liberals? Sadly, they got smart.
For this insight I’m indebted to U.S. journalist Thomas Frank, whose 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? explained the success of right-wing populism in the George W. Bush years and whose recent, Listen, Liberal, described the Hillary Clinton debacle in advance. He lectured in Toronto last month. It served as a booster shot.
I was always perplexed by Obama’s infatuation with “smart guys” like Bill Gates or Larry Summers. I’d assumed anyone who knows these certified smarties must also know they come with limits and are less than advertised.
Historically, the truly smart, starting with Socrates, know they don’t know much. But Frank explains how, from the 1980s on, U.S. Democrats divested from their longtime attachment to the poor and exploited and shifted fealty to the new professional class: people with lots of degrees, innovators, especially in “knowledge industries,” a.k.a. the creative class (a shout-out here to U of T’s Richard Florida, who coined the term).
This switch had the added benefit of making leaders such as Obama and the Clintons part of the same group they were newly devoted to representing and advancing. Hey, we all have degrees.
So Obama must’ve felt he was in smart heaven when the richest U.S. bankers — innovators of magnificent financial “devices” — filed abashedly in to see him after the 2008 crash. They clearly expected a spanking but instead got a mammoth bailout, because then, maybe, they’d really really like him. Obama and his ilk assumed their previous core constituency — workers, unions etc. — would stick with the Democrats simply because they had “nowhere else to go.” This explains Bill Clinton’s fury, after Hillary’s defeat, when he said the only thing Trump knew how to do was get “angry white men to vote for him.”
When last seen, Obama was kitesurfing the Caribbean with uber-innovator Richard Branson, who tweets insights like, “Action breeds confidence and courage.” The two of them looked happy as pigs in situ, while the nation that Obama meticulously prepped for Trump, stoically met its fate. Eat surf, voters.
This premium on smart also explains Trump’s sputtering need to declare his own genius, since no one else will. “I was a good student. I understand things. I comprehend very well, OK? Better than I think almost anybody.” (It’s the “OK” that’s telling, he’s practically pleading.) He’s in a field — real estate — that’s basic, not innovative.
He knows some smart guys too, but they’re shysters, like Carl Icahn, whose idea of smart is putting a deal over on some loser. It’s the dumb version of smart, and in the end he’s forced to retreat to the distressed souls who attend his rallies, telling them how smart he is since he’s rich (though no one knows how rich — those damn tax returns) and pledging to be their knight.
There’s also a strong whiff of smartism in the Trudeau government. At the top, they’re almost all smart professionals.
When Chrystia Freeland was an editor at the Globe, her highest term of praise was smart, not well-written or nice digging.
Bill Morneau isn’t your stuffy old finance minister type. He’s light and breezy. He cheerily tells youth to get used to job churn because he knows the story, it’s not his task to empathize or ameliorate.
Dominic Barton, head of Morneau’s advisory council, is a Rhodes scholar and director at McKinsey, which is as innovative as you can get. They consult, versus actually doing anything. They’re keen on disruption, which is very creative, especially if it’s not your life that’s being disrupted. His council’s reports are all giddy over innovation.
The Liberals just gave a big bailout to Bombardier, which is in a very smart sector. They did it to retain “high-quality jobs in Canada,” not just any old jobs; and because it “puts Canada on the map in the aerospace sector.”
I mean, who gives a crap if we get on the map unless you want other smart people to think you’re smart too? And note it’s for a sleek new jet. Why not — since Bombardier is virtually a branch of government — order them to invest in high-speed rail or public transit instead? Maybe because the smart guys take planes, not the TTC.
Thus does smartness subtly insinuate itself everywhere — except, apparently, among voters. Smart won’t ever replace fair; that’s just stupid.
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.