In the previous post I talked about how Palin uses folksiness to signal a particular kind of community engagement—one that often doesn’t make sense to those on the left. I borrowed from Robert Putnam’s writing about the decline of community engagement in America in order to point out a fundamental difference between what he calls “machers” and “schmoozers.” The last half a century has seen a sharp rise in “schmoozing” (i.e. fluid social relationships) and a decline in “maching” (i.e. enduring relationships). Palin, appealing to those who bemoan the loss of more stable community life, tries to portray herself as a “macher,” steeped in the enduring communities of small town life (the PTA, the church, the network of hockey moms). Likewise, as a political outsider, Palin wants to paint Washington as a haven for precisely the kind of opportunistic insider-ism that Putnam associates with schmoozers. In this way, Palin tries to paint Biden’s verbal acuity as indicative of an opportunistic Washington deal-maker, while her own verbal clumsiness is supposed to underscore an unfamiliarity with the world of the schmoozers. In this way, lack of knowledge signals hometown trustworthiness.
For the rest of us, more comfortable in the dynamic world of “schmoozing,” the folksiness that Palin channels comes across as naivete. Or worse, as a calculated performance.
And yet, this longing for a bygone era of more stable communities is clearly not an exclusive narrative of the right. Think about how Biden’s references to his father having to move down to Wilmington when money was tight:
I understand what it’s like to sit around the kitchen table with a father who says, “I’ve got to leave, champ, because there’s no jobs here. I got to head down to Wilmington. And when we get enough money, honey, we’ll bring you down.”
Here, Biden channels a populist message by tapping into the kinds of fears that people have about social instability. The difference is significant. While Palin leverages her folksiness to convey a certain kind localized community trust, Biden’s populist biography paints a darker world in which the once stable bonds of community engagement have been broken down by economic necessity.
“I got to head down to Wilmington. And when we get enough money, honey, we’ll bring you down.”
Think about that line for a moment. Did it really take place over the kitchen table? Can’t we also imagine Biden’s father talking to a young Joe Biden over the telephone? Perhaps he left in a hurry and didn’t have time to explain. Perhaps, plagued by guilt, he called his son regularly as a way of compensating for physical separation. In today’s networked world, that conversation might just as easily happen between a soldier and his family over skype or AIM. In both cases, appropriating the tools of a “schmoozer” is not a privilege but rather a desperate strategy to maintain family connection across great distances.
Perhaps the question for America is this: do you want a leader who indulges a nostalgic fantasy of community stability? Or do you want a leader who understands how that fantasy of stability is just that: a fantasy.