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Populism Reconsidered

September 24, 2010

America’s dirty little secret has always been its class system. We’re not supposed to have one, of course. We’re the land of Abe Lincoln, Will Rogers and “all men are created equal.” We proudly proclaim that anyone can rise to the top in this best of all possible societies.

But it hasn’t always played out that way. Just put an alumnus of Choate and Yale in the same room with a migrant farm worker and you’ll notice the difference in half a jiffy.

The rich and poor will always be with us; that’s the mark of a free society, for better or worse. We try to assure equal opportunity but can’t guarantee equal results. If everyone were equally successful, after all, who’d be picking the arugula for all those yuppie dining room tables?

I was thinking just this morning (and it’s reassuring to know that I can still think) that a good education in the liberal arts exerts a strange and unsettling influence on young minds. On the one hand, it elevates the tastes and reading habits of those impressionable individuals to an exalted and rarefied level that some of us would call highbrow or elitist. I should know, because it happened to me. (I’d call myself an omnibrow these days.)

On the other hand, that same elitist liberal education seems to bond most of its adherents together in a kind of ideological unanimity, a predilection for political progressivism that amounts almost to a secular religion. (That didn’t happen to me; I was among those wayward souls who never saw the light.)

Combine elite tastes with progressive politics, and the typical end-product is a family that professes to love minorities but sends its kids to expensive private schools. This is the American demographic that rails against the oppression of women while denouncing opponents of sharia law as Islamophobes. It seems paradoxical, of course, but somehow it all fits together.

The educated elite is united by its disdain for unsophisticated, hee-hawing, Middle American Christians. If we dug a little more deeply into their motives, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the educated elite embrace progressive politics at least partly to distinguish themselves from the unwashed NASCAR-loving Republican rabble. Voting Democrat, like listening to NPR, has become an upscale social identifier for these self-consciously enlightened status-seekers. Progressivism is now a badge of nobility.

Meanwhile, leave it to those crazy Republicans to emerge as the vanguard of grassroots populism in this upside-down republic. Formerly the party of bankers and country-clubbers, the G.O.P. now harbors a radical right-wing fringe that threatens to consume it from within. For the first time in modern memory, we’re looking at the prospect of raw, visceral, buck-naked democracy overtaking the U.S. 

This isn’t the prettified representative democracy we learned about in our high school civics lessons. We’re looking at mad-as-hell, slash-and-burn activists who want their country back and won’t take no for an answer.

What does The New Moderate think of the New Populism? If you’d have asked me two years ago, as Wall Street imploded and its malignant follies nearly wrecked the entire world economy (not to mention my own retirement portfolio), I’d have sided with the populists. I’d have told you that we needed to protect America’s beleaguered middle class… that, in fact, we needed to unmask and take down its plutocratic elite, once and for all. I felt angry and betrayed, and I hated those who had rigged the system to suck wealth into their lives at the perpetual expense of the middle class.

My animosity toward the American plutocracy hasn’t entirely cooled, but I’m a little less eager now to consider myself a populist. Yes, I’m still a sucker for the romanticized populism of Frank Capra and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I still believe we need to return our government to genuine representatives of the people. But the people themselves?

The Tea Party movement and its hyperkinetic evangelists have given me pause. I appreciate their passion and their democratic (small D) antipathy toward entrenched elites in Washington, Wall Street and university towns. But I’m still a little put off by their fevered demands for a vague, elusive Reaganite America that suits their prejudices and pocketbooks. I’ve had to conclude that I’m not one of them.

Last week, during my peregrinations around the TV universe, I stumbled upon Jersey Shore and decided to watch it for the first time. It appalled me (and I grew up in New Jersey). The skanky lowlife antics of Snooki and Co. succeeded handsomely in reviving my inner elitist.

How could someone who loves Beethoven not be driven to insanity by watching these latter-day Neanderthals cavort on the public screen? (And I’m probably insulting Neanderthals.) How can we stand to see them propelled to fame (if not fortune) by their lack of class? They made the Kardashian sisters look like royalty.

I shook my head and thought, “Behold the People!” Is this where our great experiment in democracy is culminating… with a celebration of our meanest and most retrograde specimens? Jefferson would be turning in his grave, if his mouldering bones could still turn.

Elitism vs. populism. Not a happy choice. But then, the extremes rarely are. More than ever, I’m proud to be a moderate.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Kern permalink
    September 24, 2010 4:00 pm

    What also dismays me is that “Jersey Shore” leaves this stereotype impression of Jersey folk as shallow, venial and non-moral (which some of the elected officials and religious leaders in NJ this past year have helped contribute to that impression). Yes, perhaps we are a bit harder, pushier and definitely more in a hurry than other states’ inhabitants (notably here in GA), but yet we have the sophistication of centers of industry and learning – New Brunswick being a fine example, with J&J and Rutgers, and then there’s Princeton..
    So although I grew up as the child of a warehouse worker, and we did not have a prosperous living, and I went to a state college and paid a good deal of the college fees myself, I will consider myself a bit elite, since I’ve done something with my life other than party it away..if that’s what role models we put out to the public for our children to want to be, we’re in trouble..

  2. September 25, 2010 9:23 am

    Bill: New Jersey’s public image was already in the pits, but “Jersey Shore” just reinforced the worst stereotypes. I can remember when Gov. Tom Kean and Brooke Shields did an ad campaign for New Jersey, and I thought, “maybe there’s hope.” But that was a short-lived reprieve from our no-class image.

    I still feel a tug of war between my elitist and populist impulses. I guess I’d like to see a culture that still values great art and noble virtues, but without class-based elitism. We came pretty close to that ideal back in the FDR era, I think… and even when we were growing up.

    Now it seems like the worst of both worlds: we worship the tawdriest idols while the moneyed elite continue to widen the gap between themselves and the rest of us.

  3. Priscilla permalink
    September 27, 2010 11:20 pm

    I really don’t identify with either term….perhaps because I spent a good portion of my life as an elitist, and now I am not….but I don’t identify as a populist either. At least not in the NASCAR-loving sense. I have never been to a tea party rally, and probably never will, but I do view it as a very positive grassroots movement of very normal folks like myself (at least, I think I’m normal, haha). For the life of me, I don’t see the boiling rage that you see, Rick…I just see a bunch of frustrated middle class Americans, mostly boomers like ourselves, watching their future slip into a morass of taxes and politically correct entitlements, and saying “enough!” And, I guess I just don’t understand why anyone other than entrenched elites and establishment politicians would view organizing and rallying for that purpose as something negative or dangerous.

    And there you have it….. I am reasonably intelligent, well-educated, not religious – I don’t like NASCAR, country music or Jersey Shore (ugh!). I read HuffPo and The Daily Beast (my son will begin writing for DB soon)….but I also read Hot Air, Daily Caller and Drudge. I find Rush Limbaugh to be brilliant and interesting – does that make me a retrograde specimen? Don’t answer that…..

    I guess, when it comes right down to it, I agree with William Buckley’s quote that he would rather entrust the government of the US to the first 400 people in the Boston phone book than to the faculty of Harvard. Nuff said…I guess I’m a populist 😉

    • September 29, 2010 12:30 pm

      Priscilla: Where you, the Tea Partiers and I (and even Bill Buckley) probably find common ground is our reliance on common sense. In that respect I’d consider myself a marginal populist. The elitists seem to ignore the various elephants in the room when they make their lofty pronouncements. (Speaking of elephants… in The Cynic’s Dictionary I defined an intellectual as someone who would stand his ground during a stampede of woolly mammoths because they’re theoretically extinct.)

      As for the Tea Partiers… I understand their concerns and frustrations, but I get tired of all the clamoring for smaller government during a period of massive unemployment and bleak prospects. Let’s face it: the private sector is increasingly abandoning U.S. workers for cheap overseas labor, with disastrous consequences. I really think we need to have the federal government step up and create FDR-style job programs like the WPA and CCC until the recession is over. (And I mean REALLY over; I wonder who paid those clowns to announce that the recession had ended in 2009!) Globalization has upset the natural market forces to the point that we can no longer depend exclusively on the private sector to create jobs here at home.

      That said, I agree that we also have to watch out for runaway political correctness from the left. One acquaintance of mine, a liberal (not radical) black activist, actually thinks we should put the term “illegal immigrant” in the same category as the N-word, because he regards it as a denial of their humanity. In his world, nobody should be considered “illegal.” That kind of specious reasoning, appealing to our better natures while ignoring hard reality, will be our ruin. I can imagine the same sort of argument in defense of sharia law.

      Anyway, you can see why I’m a staunch moderate. But, like you, I’m open-minded enough to read opinions from both wings — and sometimes I even agree with them!

  4. valdobiade permalink
    September 28, 2010 8:17 pm

    “The Daily Beast” looks like a nice site. I was reading opinions and they seems to be balanced between Dems and Reps and in between.

    What I find hilarious is that there are people who said that Fox News has a “large” audience, therefore it holds the majority of American opinions. This is preposterous!
    Let me explain from my experience. I like Colbert, Stewart, Maher and Letterman. I totally dislike Beck, O”realy, Hanity and Limbaugh… however, often I change to Faux News to see what these idiots have to say… Surprise! I am included in the “large” audience of Faux News, while some viewers from Faux News don’t change the channels at all for they are… well… too stupid to see other views than their own…

    When Beck is making a rally, and I am nearby, I say : “Let’s see what this idiot wants”… Surprise! I am counted as a Beck supporter!

    • September 29, 2010 12:35 pm

      Valdo: Too bad the people who compile ratings can’t distinguish between sympathetic and hostile viewers. You realize, of course, that you’re helping Fox vault to the top of the ratings. People aren’t tuning in to poor CNN because there’s no fun in hearing neutral news stories.

      • Paul Botts permalink
        September 30, 2010 11:16 am

        The great majority of people aren’t tuning in to Fox, either. We have to keep in mind that Fox’s profile in the dead-tree media and among our Beltway idiotocracy is wildly out of phase with its actual viewership by actual Americans.

        It is the highest-rated cable news network which is very much like being the tallest midget. Fox News has never for one moment of its entire history been tuned in by as many as 10% of American households; on a typical day it does not get as high as 3% of households.

        If that’s a “large” audience then I’m LeBron James. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of mapping Fox News onto the historic reality of a Walter Cronkite or somesuch in terms of how many citizens actually go to it as a news source. That’s a mistake though, it’s not evenly vaguely the reality.

  5. Priscilla permalink
    September 28, 2010 10:47 pm

    @valdo, Daily Beast is a primarily liberal, Democrat-leaning site, but features a couple of centrists and even a couple of slight right-leaners. I like it, but fair and balanced it is not. Hot Air is my favorite right leaning site…it’s not an online magazine like DB, but more of a news blog – it used to be Michelle Malkin’s, but it is now run by….while it’s unapologetically conservative in in its point of view, both of its main bloggers, Ed Morrissey and Allahpundit tend to keep to the center-right, not the far right. In fact, I find Rick’s writing style and generally even-handed opinions to be very similar to Morrissey’s….just a bit more to the left. I think that Colbert and Stewart are popular because they are center-left.

    By the way, Limbaugh is not on Fox, so you probably haven’t been accidentally included in his ratings 😉

    • September 29, 2010 12:43 pm

      Hmm, I’ve never heard of Morrissey — I’ll have to see how much his stuff resembles mine.

      The Daily Beast can be explained by a crude (but funny and telling) remark I once read about its publisher, Tina Brown. Someone on her staff said that Tina loves any story “that makes her nipples stand up.” (See, I told you.) That also might explain why I find The Daily Beast compulsively readable. (OK, I don’t have the same physiological response, but you get the picture.) It probably skews slightly toward establishment liberalism, but it’s not ideological like HuffPost — and on the whole I think there’s a decent mix of opinions.

  6. Priscilla permalink
    September 29, 2010 7:46 am

    Interesting op-ed from the NYTimes :

    Interesting in that the writer appears to be an elite, warning other elites that they belittle the tea party at their own risk. While sounding the call to take these populist rubes seriously, he still makes it clear that he believes them to be dangerous…..(e.g. “the ominous signs proliferate — the primary victories of Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller, Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, the likely election victory of Marco Rubio…) While even a populist like me can appreciate the disdain for a Christine O’Donnell or a Sharron Angle (somewhat sexist disdain, but whatever), what is his problem with Marco Rubio? First generation Hispanic American, educated, clean, classy, well-spoken,….what’s not to like? And why should that inspire words like “ominous” in relation to his victory? After all, no elite types seem to warning of the “ominous” re-election of Alan Grayson, a crude and corrupt extremist on the left, who has called his opponent “Taliban Dan”…….

    Rick, I think moderates need to get over their fear of conservatives- and by conservatives, I don’t mean wild-eyed wingnuts or knuckle draggers, I mean reasonable, thoughtful Reagan types. While I understand and agree with your apprehension over their “fevered demands for a vague, elusive Reaganite America that suits their prejudices and pocketbooks,” I think that there has been way too much movement towards the statist nirvana of the Left, aided and abetted by establishment GOP types, who “go along to get along.” Why shouldn’t moderates welcome the balance and the return to consensus that could result from the addition of many of the tea party backed candidates?

    • September 29, 2010 12:49 pm

      The problem is that the Tea Party candidates tend to be anti-consensus. They’re ideological purists, and it remains to be seen if they have the ability to work out bipartisan solutions. Still, I wouldn’t want to forcibly eject them from the political mix; I think they represent a valid viewpoint that needs to be heard (even if the liberals will be holding their hands over their ears).

      • Priscilla permalink
        September 29, 2010 2:56 pm

        I think that the idea of the tea party candidates being ideological purists is a meme that has been succesfully played out in the media, but is not necessarily true. Most tea party candidates are non-career politicians (at least at this point – we’ll see what happens to those who get elected!) who believe that the GOP has abandoned its fiscal conservative ideals and is far too willing to accomodate special interests in order to get reelected. While that may constitute ideological purity to some, to me it just seems to be an attempt to get the Republican party back to its traditional position as the party of balanced budgets and federal restraint. We need a vibrant two-party system in order for moderation to thrive. Consensus can only come from two sides moving towards the center.

  7. Priscilla permalink
    September 29, 2010 8:55 am

    Ok, sorry to flood your comments section, Rick, but I just read this, which expresses what I was trying, somewhat pathetically and inarticulately, to say, but in an effective and articulate way 🙂

  8. valdobiade permalink
    September 29, 2010 12:30 pm

    Faux News and Limbaugh ideologies look the same. Par example: “Fox News Defends Rush Limbaugh and Trashes Barack Obama.”

    I’d like to be Center-Center, not center-left or center-right… but you cannot please everybody 🙂

    I am pro-abortion… that makes me left, I am against taxes… that makes me right, I am anti-gun… that makes me left, I am anti-gay… that makes me right…

    • September 29, 2010 12:52 pm

      … and it all averages out to the center. I think you’re really more of an independent than a pure centrist, but you still have a home here.

  9. Andrea Borghi permalink
    September 29, 2010 2:14 pm

    Instead of talking of center and left and right why we do not think about the people?
    The People, with the capital P, the ones that are being violated day in day out by failed policies of doomed government, the same People that have children at public schools, children that are being told that in the future there will not be enough food for all, compounds will be created for the rich to be living in and the normal people will eat pills day in day out with the dream of spending one week per year in the people compund, very different from what the rich will have…
    Enough ranting now… Let’s think at solutions for real issues…. Let’s start from the first Outsourcing and sending our jobs to India, China, Mexico or everywhere else the rich and the corporations can find cheaper labour. Our society is built upon consumism, if the people don’t buy the economy do not function, jobs will continue to disappear and they will be moved to countries as China where totalitarian regimes (considered by the US immoral, yet exploited day in day out) exploit cheap labour and abuse the local population.
    If anyone would like to address the problem, sending jobs overseas should become not convenient for the company that decide to take that direction. There are several ways to do so , protectionism, taxes, etc… The bottom line is that a company exists to make profit and as long as cheaper labor can be found and exploited the people that are running the company will take the coirse of action of outsourcing… Someone needs to stop that!!!!
    It should be priority number one of the government (should it be for the People by the People) to put in place measures that make outsourcing more expensive than hiring labour in the US.

    • September 29, 2010 3:19 pm

      Andrea: I’m with you when it comes to outsourcing of jobs. In their desire to boost profitability and please stockholders, American companies have turned their backs on American workers. I think the federal government needs to step in and do what FDR did during the Great Depression: create public job programs that put people to work. If American companies want to stay in the game, they can create jobs that pay even higher wages than the federal jobs. The stock market might take a temporary dip, but more Americans will have more money to spend — the key to climbing out of our Great Recession.

  10. agrippa permalink
    September 29, 2010 2:29 pm

    I am a Democrat who has a problem with “progressives” calling Obama a ‘sellout”. He is not. Progressives will never get a working majority. I am old – 64 – been through the sixties with all the hoorah of that era. It feels like I am revisiting that era. Johnson & Humphrey all over again. But, it also feels fake; an affectation. Poltically, I am social democrat who knows that you have to be practical. Also, I do not affect to be angry. And, if I am angry, I know why I am. But, fear and anger are real drivers in politics. I am a great believer in what George Mitchell once said: “Do you want to make a statement or do you want to make a law?”

    • September 29, 2010 3:22 pm

      Agrippa: I thought Obama was surprisingly cozy with big-money interests like Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry. On the other hand, he impressed me by being more moderate than I expected.

      Finally, we need more consensus-builders like you. I love the George Mitchell quote.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    September 29, 2010 6:04 pm

    >> The rich and poor will always be with us; that’s the mark of a free society, for better or worse.

    Rick, this is patently untrue on all fronts.

    I have been to many impoverished, non-free countries around the world and the difference is not whether there ARE rich and poor, but rather HOW MANY are rich and HOW MANY are poor. In Cambodia, for example, there is no middle class. Nearly the entire population are dirt poor, forced to beg or eke out a subsistence living forever. But the corrupt members of the government drive huge Land Rover SUVs through the streets of Phnom Penh, barely missing the guy with the wooden oxcart on the side of the road.

    China is clearly not a free society, and while it has a growing middle class, there is astounding wealth in the cities and crushing poverty in the countryside.

    And in America– well, it doesn’t look all that different. In Los Angeles where I live, we see crushing poverty, a shrinking middle class, and ostentatious wealth.

    In fact, the countries that are doing the *best* job of eliminating the gulf between rich and poor are the social democracies of Scandanavia, where virtually nobody is poor, most people are middle class, and there is a tiny segment of wealthy people. And Scandinavia arguably contains the countries with the most robust set of personal freedoms anywhere in the world. (Note: personal freedom does not equal low taxes, as it does in America. What it does mean is that when you don’t have to worry about money, health insurance, retirement, people are truly free to pursue the lives that they choose- and not be locked into a job you hate for the health insurance, for example)

    • September 30, 2010 10:19 am

      Good observations, though part of the reason for the lack of wealth disparity in Scandinavia is cultural: most of the people are serious about pulling their weight (that old Lutheran work ethic), and apparently it’s considered bad form to amass too much wealth. You’re obviously right about Cambodia. And there are other autocratic regimes that keep the masses of the people in poverty.

      I was thinking more along the lines of the old Soviet bloc, where the people traded freedom for economic security (at least after Stalin was dead): everybody worked. Not that I’d tout Soviet communism as a model to be emulated, of course…

  12. Priscilla permalink
    September 30, 2010 8:21 am

    @Andrea and Rick “The bottom line is that a company exists to make profit and as long as cheaper labor can be found and exploited the people that are running the company will take the coirse of action of outsourcing… Someone needs to stop that!!!!”

    “Someone” as in the government? Are you two advocating state control of free enterprise? If a corporation exists for the purpose of creating profit for its shareholders, why should those who run the corporation not do whatever they can legally and ethically do to create that profit? Why not condemn big unions and big government for raising the cost of production to a point where corporate profits no longer justify staying in the US? In the Chrysler bailout, shareholders (many of whom, last I checked, were just “regular people”) were totally exploited at the expense of the UAW. As of now, government workers are paid far more, and get far better benefits, than their private sector counterparts (compare USPS and UPS, for example) because the government can just reach into our pockets and take more in taxes, regardless of how poorly run and unprofitable their operations are….but as the private sector continues to either escape or collapse, the source of that government pay is going to shrink, because government doesn’t produce anything.

    I mean, I ‘m not a freaking Gordon Gekko or anything, I’m just a working stiff myself….but I fail to see how demonizing corporations is going to help us in the long run.

  13. September 30, 2010 10:45 am

    Priscilla: Well, call me an idealist, but I don’t think a corporation should exist solely to produce wealth for its shareholders. That’s where we are now, of course. Ideally, profits should be the by-product of a useful and well-run company, not its raison d’etre.

    Shareholders (and I’m one of them) seem to be the tail that wags the dog these days. They’re indirectly responsible for the insane work hours, the downsizing, the outsourcing and other corporate evils of our time — because they’re ready to drop a company if its profits come in at a penny under expectations!

    I’d never suggest that the government has a right to force companies to hire American workers. What the government CAN do is create a favorable tax climate for companies that hire locally (and an unfavorable one for the rest).

    Failing that, the government has a right to create jobs during times of high unemployment. I think it’s time we revived the WPA, CCC and other New Deal relics to compensate for the jobs that Americans have lost to cheap overseas labor. Chronic double-digit unemployment here simply isn’t acceptable, and natural market forces aren’t going to correct the problem.

    You have to realize that globalization has upset the old supply-and-demand model for private-sector hiring in this country. Suddenly the supply pool has been artificially expanded way beyond its former limits, and American workers are suffering as a result.

    No, the private sector isn’t obligated to help all those jobless people, but in that case I think the government is justified in stepping in to create public-sector job alternatives. I know… we already have too many public sector workers. But what other choice do we have, other than culling the population to eliminate those who have been downsized or outsourced out of their jobs?

  14. Priscilla permalink
    September 30, 2010 5:45 pm

    Well, Rick, I think we have found the crux of much of our disagreement….. While I don’t subscribe to the notion that corporations exist solely for the purpose of creating profit, it is undeniably true that a corporation that does not create profit will cease to exist, and with it will cease the goods and services, as well as the jobs and wealth that it created. So, while corporations need to be responsible and accountable to the society in which they exist and to the government that regulates them, I think that their FIRST responsibility has to be to continue to exist, and therefore to be profitable.
    Government, on the other hand, should not be profitable, at least not in the corporate sense.

    Government exists to create order and protect its citizenry. And that protection should take the form not only of preventing the abuse of workers by corporations, but also the abuse of corporations by big unions, and by corrupt “public servants.” Just yesterday, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO (and major supporter of Obama) called for “public control of corporations.” No thank you!
    Don’t get me wrong, here…..I am not trying to argue that corporations are the “good guys” and unions and government are the “bad guys.” No way. There are plenty of bad guys all around – but greed does not restrict itself to the corporate board room.

    Of course, I agree with you that globalization has changed things in many ways. For example, the fact that the US has the 2nd highest corporate tax rate in the world has badly hurt our competitiveness in the global market. It didn’t used to matter back in the “old days” when US corporations were unchallenged, but it sure as hell matters now.

    Finally, I have to respectfully disagree with you about the role of government “job creation”. The New Deal programs, while a darn sight better than the crap we got out of the stimulus bill (which was no job creation at all, other than the census) did not get us out of the Depression. It was WWII that did that.

  15. valdobiade permalink
    October 1, 2010 2:15 pm

    Priscilla wrote: Government exists to create order and protect its citizenry. And that protection should take the form not only of preventing the abuse of workers by corporations, but also the abuse of corporations by big unions, and by corrupt “public servants.” Just yesterday, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO (and major supporter of Obama) called for “public control of corporations.” No thank you!

    Interesting, but why the government (no matter if Rep or Dem) is always to be blamed for economic failures? Why should the government help the corporations when they fail to deliver?

    I don’t think that the recession was created by the government or by the public controlling the corporations. And what is wrong if the public invest in corporations and they lose money, then go after corporations and ask “what the hell are you doing with my money?”

    Are the corporations answering back like : “Well… I failed because of you, the public. You did not buy my goods and services that I produced outside of the USA. They are cheaper… ohh… you lost your jobs? Well… You American workers are asking for too much money and I cannot make profit for me… ohhh… I mean, my shareholders who are losing money”

    I bet your answer would be… “well… it is more complicated than that”

    • Anonymous permalink
      October 1, 2010 4:39 pm

      Well…you’re right 🙂

  16. Priscilla permalink
    October 1, 2010 4:40 pm

    ^^That was me – forgot to fill in my name


  1. The Daily Digest – September 27, 2010 « The American Middle

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