Yesterday, Elon James White’s This Week in Blackness released a hilarious new video in which he dissects the recent vice presidential debate and questions the mysterious power of “folksiness.” (The full version can be found here.)
I found myself particularly drawn to the excerpt above where Elon asks the question: “Why do people like this folksy nonsense?” Do people really want to select a president based on whom they’d most like to “have a beer with”?
For me, the questions he raises here point to a significant divide between different modes of friendship and trust formation—a difference that most likely splits along party lines.
Robert Putnam’s distinction between “machers” and “schmoozers” seems particularly apropos here. In trying to understand why, over the past 50 yrs, Americans have been dropping out of organized community life, Putnam argues (in Bowling Alone) that there are two distinct modes of sociality that can be located in the history of our country. He deploys the Yiddish distinction between “machers” and “schmoozers” to illustrate this point.
In Putnam’s passage below, think about which group (“machers” or “schmoozers”) best describe the persona that Sarah Palin tries to project:
In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers – that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers … Machers are the all-around good citizens of their community. (Putnam, 2000: 93-4)
Schmoozers have an active social life, but by contrast to machers, their engagement is less organized and purposeful, more spontaneous and flexible. (p. 94)
The two types of social involvement overlap to some extent … Some social settings fall into a gray area between the formal and the informal … Nevertheless, as an empirical matter, the two syndromes are largely distinct – many people are active in one sphere but not the other. (p. 94)
We can think of “machers” here as participants in more enduring social formations: churches goers, little league coaches, neighborhood association leaders, etc. These relationships are relatively enduring and resistant to change.
By contrast, much of the interactions we associate with the rise of a networked public are more ephemeral, less enduring, less likely to lead to long-term trust. In this sense, schmoozers are not match-makers but rather deal-makers, less interested in preserving collective goods.
Putnam goes on to claim that this more fluid kind of social activity (“schmoozing”) has increased over the past 50 yrs or so, while the more institutionalized forms of community engagement (“maching”) have largely declined.
So returning to Elon’s question: why would you want a president that looks, sounds, and acts… well, folksy? After all, we wouldn’t want our friends running the country, because, after all, we barely trust them to remember to feed our pets when we go out of town. Sending off signals of sociability is hardly justification for leadership potential.
But the kinds of “typical” friendships that Elon evokes here are precisely the kinds of “schmoozing” social experiences that Putnam claims are on the rise (while, the more steadfast, stable relationships of “machers” are on the decline).
Is it possible that people who vote for Sarah Palin (or Bush for that matter) out of an attraction to “folksiness” are responding to a different set of assumptions about what it means to “know” someone? Are they longing some nostalgic fantasy?—a bygone era when people knew their neighbors and participated regularly in more stable institutions of community life (the church, the PTA, the bowling league, etc.).
When people say they could imagine “having a beer with Bush,” why do I picture a bar? Perhaps these fans of Bush weren’t thinking about bars or nightclubs. Perhaps they were thinking of drinks at a neighborhood cookout, or sharing a beer at the bowling ally with the longtime friends they grew up with.
When Palin uses phrases like “you betcha,” perhaps she’s sending a coded message to a particular constituency of “machers” who associate friendship with a more enduring set of experiences. Perhaps for conservatives, “folksiness” signals a coded message that “you can trust me,” I won’t let you down because my reputation is at stake.