. . . until the New Hampshire primary.
I've noted before that Presidential campaign politics sometimes resembles high school social life. One phenomenon common to both that has been on my mind lately is the Designation of the Unpopular. It goes like this:
For there to be a "popular" group, there must also be someone who is "unpopular," someone for the in-group to bully and harass. This person is often selected because he or she manifests qualities that are esteemed in the outside world. Perhaps this is an unconscious reaction by the in-group to the threat posed by those qualities. Thus the person designated as unpopular may be smart, talented, original, good-looking, or otherwise possessed of certain advantages. The designee need not have these qualities to any great degree; even the slightest superiority in one of these areas is sufficient to turn a decent kid into a target.
Take John Edwards, for example. He's blond, slender and handsome--not outrageously so, but certainly more so than Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, James Taranto, Ann Coulter, et als.
It only takes one comment from the popular set to begin the process of turning a kid into a target.
Ann Coulter: "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards."
The first comment signals to the popular crowd that it's safe to go after the designee. It also serves as a challenge: if you don't agree with it and chime in with a denigrating comment of your own, maybe you don't belong in the popular set. A kind of put-down oneupmanship develops as the whole group piles on.
If the victim of this kind of harassment has the temerity to complain, or even to be seen as taking offense, the in-crowd says they were just kidding, and what's the matter, can't you take a joke?
"'The word I used has nothing to do with sexual preference,' Coulter said on Monday. 'It is a schoolyard taunt, and unless you're going to announce here on national TV that John Edwards, married father of many children, is gay, it clearly had nothing to do with that. It's a schoolyard taunt.'"
The designee is then put in an impossible position. If he ignores the taunts, he's a pansy, but if he tries to do something about them, he's over-reacting and lacks a sense of humor. With any luck, he'll drop out of school--at which point the in-group will designate someone else to be the unpopular one.
Glenn Greenwald points out (with terrific pictures!) that some of the men smearing Edwards for somehow being insufficiently masculine are themselves pretty soft, pink and curvaceous and thinks that their attacks reveal much about their own gender anxieties. That certainly fits into the high school scenario. Why are so many adolescents so reflexively homophobic? It's because many kids haven't figured out who they are yet, sexually speaking. They find it hard to define themselves in terms of what they ARE, because that's complicated and scary--but it's much easier to define themselves in terms of what they AREN'T. Kids who use Coulter's "schoolyard taunt" really mean, "I haven't sorted out my own sexual feelings yet, but I hope I'M NOT GAY!" Most of us move past that stage and become secure in our own sexualities, at which point we stop feeling the need to define ourselves by what we hope we are not. Some people, however, never become that sexually secure, but stay stuck in an endless high school hallway. They grow up to become the people who make childish remarks about people like John Edwards.
Nordette Adams compares the recent attacks on Edwards to the movie Mean Girls (which I haven't seen, but that sounds about right). As she says, "We'd like to think it's only high school, but in reality adults, both men and women, still operate this way, and when election time comes 'round it's back to the schoolyard."