Politics and Public Opinion

The White House and the Pauline Kael Syndrome

The late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously said after Nixon’s landslide reelection, “How can he have won? Nobody I know voted for him.” My proposition for today is that the entire White House suffers from the Kael syndrome.

It was the only explanation I could think of as I watched the news last night about the coming prosecution of CIA interrogators. When it comes to political analysis, I’m no Barone or Bowman or Ornstein, but this is not a really tough call. Attempts to put men on trial who obtained information that most Americans will believe (probably rightly) saved the nation from more terrorist attacks will be a political catastrophe, all the more so because I bet that the defendants will come across as straight-arrow good guys (and probably are), while the prosecutors come across as self-righteous wimps (and…). How could the White House not have thought this through?

And then I was reminded of the graph that I put together just last week, as part of the book I’m working on. Here it is:
murray-gssAuthor’s analysis of the GSS. Sample limited to non-Latino whites ages 30–49 in the survey year.

The General Social Survey, a mother lode of information for social scientists that has been collected annually or biannually since 1972, has asked people in every survey to say whether they are extremely conservative, conservative, slightly conservative, moderate, slightly liberal, liberal, or extremely liberal. A really simple question.

The graph represents the percentage of people who answered “extremely liberal” or “liberal” minus the percentage of people who answered “extremely conservative” or “conservative” in any given survey. I won’t go into the statistical details (for that, buy the book in a couple of years), but think of the classes this way:

Traditional Upper: Someone at the 95th percentile of income, with a graduate degree, who is a business executive, physician, engineer, etc.

Intellectual Upper: Also at the 95th percentile of income and with a graduate degree, but a lawyer, academic, scientist (hard or soft) outside academia, writer, in the news media, or a creator of entertainment programming (film and television).

Traditional Middle: Same occupations as the Traditional Uppers, but with just a bachelor’s degree and at the 75th percentile of income.

Technical Middle: Someone working in the many technical specialties that have proliferated in health, information technology, and industrial technology, with an associate’s degree and at the 50th percentile of income.

Working: Someone working in a skilled blue-collar job, with just a high school diploma and at the 25th percentile of income.

Lower: Someone working at a low-skill job who didn’t finish high school, at the 5th percentile of income.

The graph is based exclusively on non-Latino whites (because that’s who the book is about). If you want to see a visual representation of the development of the bubble that Barack Obama has been living in since he left Hawaii, that graph is it. Judging from the GSS data, every white socioeconomic class in America has become more conservative in the last four decades, with the Traditional Middles moving the most decisively rightward. But the Intellectual Uppers have not just moved slightly in the other direction, they have careened in the other direction.

They won the election with a candidate who sounded centrist running against an exceptionally weak Republican opponent. But they’ve been in the bubble too long. They really think that the rest of America thinks as they do. Nothing but the Pauline Kael syndrome can explain the political idiocy of letting Attorney General Eric Holder go after the interrogators.

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