A Tale of Two Oracles


Julian Sanchez on Joe the Plumber:

It's hardly new to see political advocates whose non-ideological identities are as important to their public role as the substance of what they're saying–but there's traditionally been some sort of link between the two. That is, it matters that Ward Connerly is a black man arguing against affirmative action, and that Cindy Sheehan is a dead soldier's mother arguing against the war in Iraq, because who they are is seen as lending some kind of special credence to what they say. Joe the Plumber started out in that familiar mold: Here was a working class guy with entrepreneurial aspirations challenging Barack Obama's tax policy.

But JtP soon branched out, becoming a war correspondent for Pajamas TV and an all-purpose media critic, sitting on a panel about media bias at last week's "Conservatism 2.0" subconference at CPAC. (Tellingly, while lots of folks lined up for JtP's book signing, the room that had been packed for a panel of conservative media strategists cleared out substantially for Joe's panel, despite his being billed as a star attraction.) What's interesting to me is that even most conservatives don't seem to think Joe has any special insight, expertise, or moral authority on these topics. In fact, it seems as though that's the whole point. Joe symbolizes conservative faith in the common-sensical wisdom of the ordinary man as superior to the pronouncements of Washington wonks and pointy headed elites.

A minor caveat: I think it conceivable that someone who stood in the middle of a media firestorm could have some interesting things to say about the press. ThePlumber's other recent adventures—the book, the bizarre excursion to Gaza—might be better examples of Julian's point.

A larger disagreement: I'm not so sure that this is very different from Sheehan, who after a while was offering pronouncements on topics somewhat distant from Iraq (the virtues of Hugo Chavez, for example) and who eventually wound up doing a Vanity Fair photo spread that formally dwelled on the reason for her fame but in context seemed miles removed from it. Ever since the Gaza venture, in which the plumber-pundit discussed the Middle East with all the sophistication of Sheehan describing Venezuela, I've thought of Joseph Wurzelbacher as the Cindy Sheehan of the right: Both evolved from sympathetic spontaneous grassroots voices into increasingly grotesque media figures, sinking deeper into self-parody the more they embraced their celebrity. (There's a fictional parallel in the end of Waiting for Guffman, when the members of the Blane theater troupe find demeaning jobs in the lowest rungs of the entertainment industry. Except that those would-be celebs don't even achieve the fame they're pursuing.)

And still I find myself sympathizing with the mother and the plumber. That's partly because both have withstood nasty smear campaigns, but it's also because I'm not sure I'd behave any differently in their position. Put yourself in their shoes. For most of your life you've been anonymous. Suddenly thousands, maybe millions of strangers want to hear your opinions. Are you really going to refrain from spouting off? When there's money on the table? And when you're ultimately no less qualified to opine than some of the loudest voices on Fox and MSNBC? In a sane world, Cindy Sheehan and Joe the Plumber would be mid-level bloggers whose sporadically insightful punditry doesn't interfere with their day jobs. In a sane world, the same would be true of half the regulars on talk TV.

Both Sheehan and Wurzelbacher are idiosyncratic individuals who became famous because they were supposed to serve as stand-ins for entire classes. Sheehan represented all the mothers who have lost children in Iraq; or, even more broadly, every Middle American opponent of the war. Wurzelbacher represented all the potential small businessmen who might be penalized by high taxes; or, even more broadly, every blue-collar worker who doesn't trust liberals. But instead of disappearing with the news cycle, both of them stuck around, forcing the world to realize that these were human beings, not walking synecdoches. Both were still asked to play The Voice Of The Folk, and both gamely tried, even though such oracles have never existed and never will. It's their idiosyncrasies that make Cindy and Joe authentic. It's their fame that makes them phony.