Friday, April 11, 2008

"Regular Guy" Pet Peeve

Something's been bugging me for a little while. I wasn't able to put my finger on it exactly, but I think it's getting clearer recently. The election season has brought it out into the light. What is it, you ask? It's the "regular guy" thing.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC is particularly useful in illustrating this point as he takes pride in his regular guy credentials. He talks about his Philadelphia roots and loves the people who "tell it like it is." It's a kind of homage to the Philly brand of blue collar, street vendor coffee, hockey jersey wearing, bar stool street cred that turns Matthews on. There's a different version of this regular guy myth depending on where your from, but it's out there. It's more than that though. The other half of the equation is the imaginary formula that constitutes irregular guyness or non-regular guyness, or however you'd like to put it. If you have a job in an office, drink coffee from Starbucks, wear a polo shirt on weekends, and drink wine with your dinner you're some kind of "namby pamby" wuss. At least, that's the implication. You don't count for a real, down to earth, honest to goodness opinion on the "stuff that really matters."

The problem with the "regular guy" theorists, like Matthews, is that they disdain the elitist, intellectual, white collar sensibility but set up an elitist position of their own in doing so. In effect, they are the grand champions of the dumbing down of the American middle class. Speaking in terms of the properties of media, television works best when it sets up either/or propositions. It deals with issues in black and white, setting up false choices at every turn. In that respect it serves propagandists and PR specialists perfectly because it narrows our perspective and sets us up in a position of extreme polarization. Wonder why we have red and blue states? Thank you CNN.

George Bush is a "regular guy" because he clears brush, talks kinda dumb, and used to be an alcoholic. Al Gore was a latte-drinking, Prius driver "non-regular guy" cause he likes to answer questions and stuff. The ultimate sign of a non-regular guy? Nobel Prize. Ed Rendell is a regular guy cause he looks kind of burly, "tells it like it is", and doesn't care what people think about it. Barack Obama isn't a regular guy because he can't bowl, speaks real good, and was President of the Harvard Law Review. Forget Hillary Clinton. Women obviously can't be regular guys, but whatever the equivalent might be for them it must include taking no offense to being called "honey" or "dear" by regular guys.

The way I see it, the whole phenomenon is a direct result of the extreme reliance on demographics in marketing, advertising, and politics. In order to capitalize on trends in spending we've become slaves to targeted messaging that defines the boundaries of personal identity. While ad execs are busy dissecting the psyche of every possible sub-group of American society, they are also reinforcing the psychological boundaries of identity that they seek to understand. It works perfectly for an industry that wants to identify and hold a particular audience in place in order to target it most effectively. This works to define identity in general, but reserves a particularly insidious place when it comes to politics. The excellent book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" by Thomas Frank describes the phenomenon very well, saying:

"Over the last thirty-five years the Republicans have transformed themselves from an aristocratic minority into the nation's dominant political party, a brawling, beer-drinking buddy of the working man. The strategy by which they have won this triumph is instantly familiar and yet so bizarre it's sometimes hard to believe it's actually happened: Think of Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of the "silent majority," or Ronald Reagan shaking his head at those crazy college professors, or George W. Bush sticking up for the "regular Americans," or the army of pundits who have written so eloquently in recent months about the humble folk of the "red states.""

That quote identifies the shift in the political environment perfectly, except that I think it overly emphasizes the Republican identity. Yes, the GOP managed to take control of the electorate using this strategy to convince blue collar America to abandon the labor union, embrace cultural identity, and vote against their own economic interest. The entire political landscape is now dominated by this line of thinking from Republican to Democrat and everywhere in between. In fact, the Lou Dobbs brand of everyday man mythology targets the large number of independent voters who are disillusioned by the whole process. In an age when everything is branded, packaged, marketed, targeted, spun, and carefully managed the ultimate quest for authenticity is the defining characteristic of our modern world. The irony is, the definition of authenticity takes place by the identical process used to brand, package, market, target, spin, and carefully manage everything else. Authenticity is now the province of the mass media.

I'm on the cusp of my first graduate degree. I like wine. I like espresso. I'm inclined to buy a hybrid if and when I buy my next car. I take pride in my ability to express myself intelligently. I read the New York Times. I speak Japanese. I'm a vegetarian and I like to eat at expensive restaurants with foreign names. Chris Matthews is writing me off as I make this list. The thing is, I like street vendor coffee for a dollar. I prefer to wear jeans and Timberlands. Beer is good. Whisky and tequila, too. If you crowd me on the subway, I'm gonna say, "Get outta my fucking space." I'm a fan of clearing brush and stacking wood. Put on the game and I'm likely to jump through the roof when something happens good or bad. I love boxing and I think motocross is about the most exciting sport to watch in the world. Sit me down at a diner and I'll order the greasiest thing on the menu. What does all that tell you Lou Dobbs?

It tells me that there is no such thing as a "regular guy." The myth of the regular guy sells all of us short. It counts on us all being zombies. It counts on men favoring their more base selves and women favoring their submissive side. Humanity is best for its complexity and we demean our American culture by boiling it down to false choices. Reinforcing these choices by framing our national political discourse as a battle between the regular guy and the elitist intellectual class is a distortion of the truth and robs us all of a deeper vision of who we are and what problems face us as a people. Next time you hear someone playing this "regular guy" game, ask yourself what the truth is. Ask yourself what's missing in their portrayal of the issues and the culture itself. I'm sure you'll find it lacking.


Paul Levinson said...

Excellent analysis - this deserves wide dissemination.

Mike Plugh said...

Thanks. It did well at DailyKos, where I re-posted it in a dairy. 25 comments there and a good lively discussion.