DES MOINES, Iowa—A popular slogan for T-shirts and bumper stickers here in Iowa’s capital is “Des Moines: Hell Yes.”
The gag, which is now very mainstream, is about Des Moinesians owning the negative views of their city as boring. In fact, another popular T-shirt from the same maker invites you to “Let us exceed your already low expectations.” The message is that we get it, okay, but we’re going to keep on keeping on.
But most Americans don’t have low expectations of Des Moines. Most Americans have no expectations of Des Moines, because, except for the presidential caucuses held in Iowa every four years, it doesn’t matter much to their lives. If they visited, though, they would find a mostly safe, prosperous, and pleasant place to live. Indeed, you would find much the same thing in other smallish cities across the country, from Salt Lake City to Rochester, New York, to Birmingham, Alabama.
Being good at being a regional hub or state capital in a mostly rural area is neither edgy nor defiant. It is virtuous, maybe even impressive, but it is not an act of rebellion. So what’s up with Des Moines being in your face about it?
Maybe where you live you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “Proud parent of a great kid who is sometimes an a—hole and that’s okay.” The message is the same as Des Moines’ expression of defiant pleasantness and competency. These are not like those stuck up parents who want you to know their kid is on the honor roll or the cheerleading squad. These parents get it. They use swear words. They know their kids are brats sometimes. They’re not going to tell you they’re perfect like you want them to be, but they’re just going to keep right on doing it.
But, of course, most people don’t care any more that your kid is occasionally a jerk than they would if she or he is on the honor roll. Your ill-mannered child matters to most Americans about as much as whether Des Moines actually has great brew pubs and cool lofts. Which is to say, almost never.
America’s allergy to snobbery has mostly been a good thing. Our resentment of notions of class and station common in Europe and many Asian cultures has been crucial to our nation’s capacity for dynamism and opportunity.
But it also creates a kind of inflation for crassness. When nobody wants to be elite or superior, it takes more and more to establish one’s status as a renegade or an outsider. We know all about this with sex and violence in our culture. What was once shocking, say the once-infamous shower scene in Psycho or Sharon Stone’s interrogation in Basic Instinct, now seems quaint. The payload needed to horrify or titillate an audience goes up and up, always demanding more blood or skin to seem truly edgy.
So it goes with boorishness and crudeness for the rest of society. With everyone working so hard to prove they are not elites, particularly the elites themselves, you need to be ever more real and raw to set yourself apart.
Americans have developed an unhealthy appetite for attaining the status of victimhood. And when that desire permeates even the highest reaches of a society, it tends to forbid showing signs of competency, agreeableness, and decorum.
Which brings us, of course, to our pitiful Congress, John Fetterman’s shorts, Lauren Boebert (patroness of the performing arts), and a bunch of overeducated millionaires pretending to be oppressed members of the underclass.
Being good at governing is boring. Aside from those moments when history intervenes and presents a real crisis, most of what effective leaders do is kind of a grind. Putting on a sober-looking suit and hashing out a bill to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration is not supposed to be a transgressive act. But what if you dressed poorly? What if you spoke with contempt for your colleagues? What if you let people know that you’re not like those stuck-up goodie goodies on the congressional honor roll, but that you get it …
What you’d get is what we have, not just in Congress, but across the broad elite in America: a bunch of people so afraid of being seen as typical try-hards that they denigrate virtue and aspire to be seen as crude, rude, and crass. They don’t want to be “basic,” so they would rather be abased.
That’s how we went from having a Congress in which members aspired to be respected and influential to one in which members want every day to be Caddy Day at Bushwood Country Club. It’s the slobs versus the snobs, all right, but what happens when there are no more Elihu Smails to kick around anymore?
If everything and everyone—from pleasant, small cities, to loving parents, to back-benchers in Congress—wants to be seen as a defiant, we will quickly go from aspirations for a classless society to one that just has no class.