Class as a way of understanding Christine O’Donnell and the tea party

With her tea party-fueled victory in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell has soared to national prominence faster than you can say 'Sarah Palin.' Are critics of both parties being condescending?

By , Staff Writer

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    Christine O' Donnell, Delaware Republican U.S. Senate nominee, waves as she takes the stage to address the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday September 17.
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Following her tea party-fueled victory in Delaware’s GOP senate primary this past week, Christine O’Donnell has soared to national prominence faster than you can say “Sarah Palin.” In fact, many are likening O’Donnell to the mama grizzly herself.

IN PICTURES: Tea Parties

Let us count the ways:

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• A folksy style that laughs off her party’s hierarchy. (We’re talking about you, Karl Rove).
• A working class background to be proud of. (She may not be able to gut a moose, but she probably changes the oil in her car.)
• A certain kind of femininity attractive to both men and women. (In a Daily Beast column headlined “Watch Your Back, Sarah,” Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson warns Palin “not to be upstaged by the new It Girl on the block.”)
• A stick-to-her-guns attitude. (Addressing the conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington Friday, O’Donnell resuscitated the “death panel” charge against health care reform.)
• A meteoric rise in media attention. (She’ll be on two of the most prominent Sunday TV talk shows.)
• And a tendency to colorful rhetorical flourishes like, “I can see Pennsylvania from Delaware.” (OK, we made that up.)

Liberals and Democrats are dredging up O’Donnell’s checkered past – not hard to do, since establishment Republicans already had done that in promoting US Rep. Mike Castle for the senate post. One who is not doing that is Chris Coons, O’Donnell’s Democratic opponent in the race.

“I don't think [voters are] particularly interested in statements that either of us made 20 or 30 years ago,” he said at a candidates’ forum Thursday. (Probably just as well. As a college student, Coons wrote an article titled “Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist.”)

“I thank you for that gentlemanly approach,” O’Donnell replied.

Republicans love to tar Democrats with waging “class warfare” on things like the federal minimum wage and whose taxes to cut.

But some observers are beginning to see class as an issue within the GOP itself as it struggles to balance its traditional view of who should be in the club with the tea party insurgency that has notched significant wins over establishment Republican candidates in this year’s primary elections.

In a thoughtful and provocative column in Salon, Glenn Greenwald examines this.

“There are some reactions to the Tea Party movement coming from many different directions – illustrated by the patronizing mockery of Christine O'Donnell – which I find quite misguided, revealingly condescending, and somewhat obnoxious,” he writes, referring to O’Donnell critics of both parties.

“Much of the patronizing derision and scorn heaped on people like Christine O'Donnell have very little to do with their substantive views – since when did right-wing extremism place one beyond the pale? – and much more to do with the fact they're so … unruly and unwashed,” Greenwald continues. “To members of the establishment and the ruling class (like Rove), these are the kinds of people – who struggle with tuition bills and have their homes foreclosed – who belong in Walmarts, community colleges, low-paying jobs, and voting booths on command, not in the august United States Senate.”

Greenwald observes that Bill Clinton drew the same kind of criticism when he came to Washington. Even though he’d been educated at Yale and Oxford, Clinton had been raised by a working-class single mother, and he “exuded all sorts of cultural signifiers perceived as uncouth.”

“I'm not defending Palin or O'Donnell; they both hold views, most views, which I find repellent,” Greenwald writes. “But it's hard not to notice the double standard which treats quite respectfully many politicians with the right lineage who espouse views every bit as radical. This is the kind of condescension that causes Sarah Palin's anti-elitism screeds to resonate and to channel genuine resentments.”

Americans like to think of themselves as living in a classless society. That’s one reason we revolted in the first place. But that’s never been true, whether one is a Democrat or a Republican. And the reaction to the tea parties – there are many of them – is proving that.

IN PICTURES: Tea Parties

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