Although Louisiana’s junior senator has stirred a lot of controversy this month, don’t sleep on the state’s senior senator who stimulated debate about populism in politics, particularly among conservatives. And in the end, the topic loops back unto itself.
Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy shocked his political base first by accepting the fair-to-middling contention that the Senate could try an impeached private citizen, then by assenting to the extraordinarily weak case that GOP former Pres. Donald Trump incited insurrection. Wiser heads prevailed to reject that, including Republican Sen. John Kennedy.
However, Kennedy provoked his own hullabaloo when he held forth on national television about the new U.S. special climate envoy, former Sec. of State, and failed Democrat presidential nominee John Kerry. Kerry travelled to and from Iceland by private plane in 2019 to receive an award for his environmental activism, and faced questioning from the local media about the appropriateness of it all, which he defended as necessary “for somebody like me.”
Reminded of this by talk show host Sean Hannity, Kennedy eviscerated that attitude, which he later summarized on social media: “I say this firmly but gently: Americans are tired of being lectured by the managerial elites who think they’re special. You don’t earn respect by claiming the rules don’t apply to you.” Particularly ear-catching was his definition of that elite: “the entrenched politicians, the media, the academics, the corporate phonies, the tuna-tartare crowd who live in the expensive condos with the high ceilings and the important art on the wall, who think they’re better than the American people, who think they’re smarter and more virtuous than the American people, and who they think are special, and that the rules don’t apply to them.”
Predictably, this triggered some folks, but perhaps surprisingly including some on the Never Trump political right, presumably of the “tuna-tartare crowd.” Most threatened appeared to be National Review’s Jay Nordlinger (who famously divorced himself from the Republican Party with Trump’s nomination, citing a laundry list of policy reasons that eventually proved fatuous), who proclaimed that Kennedy launched “a spectacular example of populist rhetoric”:
The American people don’t live in condos, you see. (Neither do they work in the media, the corporate world, etc.) They don’t have high ceilings. They don’t have art on the wall, either important or imported. And they sure as hell don’t eat tuna tartare.
People who live in condos with high ceilings and art — and who eat tuna tartare — just aren’t American.
He then spent a couple of hundred words explaining how one could have conservative yet non-populist views and enjoy the finer things of life, followed by dozens of more wondering whether Kennedy really meant what he said given Kennedy’s pedigree and station in life (I don’t know the senator that well, but from what I gather from my interactions with him and from what I know of him from other sources, as he said in the triggering comments, he does indeed “walk the walk”), and then finished with this:
Obviously, Senator Kennedy will be reelected forever, talking the way he does. You can almost never go wrong by piling on the populism, thick. But honestly, what a sorry way to live.
Incidentally, Louisiana is the third-poorest state in the Union. It is a state with serious, serious problems. What does Kennedy’s rhetoric do to help people in Louisiana? How does it improve their lives one bit?
The likes of Kennedy just whip up bitterness and resentment, and I think that’s pretty rotten.
In a related piece that day, he called Kennedy’s rhetoric worthy of Democrat former Gov. Huey Long, the preeminent liberal populist of his era, as a means to denigrate further Kennedy through guilt by association. He also tried tying him to Democrat former Alabama Gov. George Wallace in rhetorical style.
The criticism levied by Nordlinger, however, has more than a whiff of dishonesty. He introduced readers to Kennedy’s remarks with two notable omissions: with the phrase “the entrenched politicians” he left out “entrenched” and left out the entire last part: “who think they’re smarter and more virtuous than the American people, and who they think are special, and that the rules don’t apply to them.”
In short, Kennedy was criticizing hypocrites like Kerry who argue in their policy preferences that the great unwashed must live by one set of rules (and doesn’t include all politicians) while he and the elite are exempt from these. By contrast, Nordlinger manipulates the quote to make it appear Kennedy attacks anybody with more “refined” tastes in an effort to mobilize the masses, and even suggests it’s Kennedy who is the hypocrite.
This is entirely disingenuous, but perhaps not surprising. The Never Trump crowd loathes “populism” not only because its conservative adherents rally to Trump, who they view as a gatecrasher in the right’s political power structure that they worked so hard to enter, but also because populism singles out conservative elites as too comfortable in their stations in political life – including excessive willingness to get along and go along with the left – and too assumptive that they represent “conservatism.” Kennedy’s drew Nordlinger’s ire because, absent the part about double standards, it hit home to Nordlinger and those like him, which is why he felt threatened enough to take the quote out of context and to try to turn it into class warfare.
(It also would behoove Nordlinger, and others like him, to understand the fundamental difference between the liberal populism of Long and conservative version practiced by Kennedy. Liberal populism in fact is all about class warfare that defines the elite as wealthy and/or privileged interests and their stooges with political power, who subjugate the people. Conservative populism identifies oppressive government and its sycophants – which might include members of the political right – as the malign force against the people, supported by elites who benefit from that power structure while hypocritically invoking bogus class warfare. Nordlinger should know better that you can’t equate the two forms)
Ultimately, it all comes back to whether those in public policy debates sell out principles because they invest too much of their own personal feelings. Cassidy apparently did this as revealed in his impeachment trial actions: you can paint as many horses with stripes and call them zebras as you like, but it doesn’t make them zebras. The objective evidence of the case simply doesn’t permit conviction of Trump on the made-up charge, so his vote to convict must stem from less intellectual and more emotive, personal motivations (or from poor judgment unbecoming of an elected official.)
Similarly, Nordlinger and those like him abandon principle when they perceive conservative populism putting at risk their sinecures among conservative elites, bringing in personal considerations in their responses. Kennedy is who he has been; it is they who have lost themselves as “constitutional conservatives” or otherwise.