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  • Hans Noel

The faculty lounge discourse* is a red herring

James Carville, in what might be considered lounge-wear. (Photo by Aaron Webb)
James Carville, in what might be considered lounge-wear. (Photo by Aaron Webb)

Academics are mad at James Carville for dismissing what he calls "faculty lounge" politics in his Vox interview with Sean Illing. His words evoke an unfair stereotype of out-of-touch and lazy academic elites. We don't even have faculty lounges!

But the thing about the comment is that Carville isn't not trying to accurately describe the role of academic ideas in politics. He is doing politics. And to the extent that he’s praising Biden for also doing politics, he’s right!

The fact that Carville used “faculty lounge” as a synecdoche** for the nuanced conceptualization*** academics traffic in is a red herring. Carville argues that Biden succeeds because he doesn’t talk like that. True, as far as that goes.

But the subtext**** could be that Democrats shouldn’t talk about race at all. Illing cuts right through to that, so we know that Carville’s phrasing was effective at communicating what he wants to say, even if in fact there is no lounge for faculty.

And we did get Carville’s his answer, which was at least an acknowledgement of the importance of race and related issues. It may not be very satisfying, but remember, he’s doing politics, not analysis.

Carville thinks that the way to make progress on these issues is to avoid academic speak. That might be true. But note that he then uses his own specialized jargon. (Do political consultants have “lounges”?)

The rest of the discussion is about “how people talk,” and who gets to “define” the Democratic Party, them or outsiders. It’s a discussion that frankly would be right at home in whatever lounge group identity scholars hang out in.

Carville praises Biden for not being in the faculty lounge, but he’s not in Carville’s consultant lounge either. Biden does not try to “go after” Jim Jordan or dredge up Dennis Hastert. That's not Biden's strategy, but Carville wishes it was. His entire purpose in the interview is to pitch his lounge’s strategy.

Biden’s defining political attribute is that he is a coalition-builder and a coalition maintainer (Karol 2009)***** He knows where the center of gravity of his coalition is, and he knows where the factions are too.

A lot of what Carville calls “faculty lounge” politics is a significant part of the Democratic coalition. I think it's larger than Carville thinks it is, because even people who don’t say “intersectionality” may want what those who do say it want.

Put simplistically, Carville's analysis implies that no idea that is cultivated in academia has any purchase anywhere, which would be odd. Indeed, political scientists were on to the idea the "it's the economy stupid," long before Carville helped Bill Clinton win in 1992 with that message. Many of the things that the "woke" left wants are actually pretty sensible (fewer police shootings, compassion at the border, action on climate change), and then politicians usually work to translate these good ideas into political reality. Indeed, they may even be constrained by how those ideas are put together, or so I have argued.

Biden’s strategy is to appeal to the "woke" part of the Democratic coalition not with academic language but in other ways. And so far, he’s been pretty successful. Point Carville.

Biden also appeals to the part of the party that is not only not “faculty lounge” fluent, but is even hostile to its ideas. Some of that appeal would be undermined if Biden used the scorched-earth approach that Carville advocates against Republicans. Biden doesn't do that, because Biden is managing a coalition.

Carville is doing a different kind of politics. Most people see a tradeoff between policy goals and electioneering. Carville's a campaign guy, so he doesn't want to let policy get in the way.

Bashing policy goals as just coming from the out of touch academic world is a good way to make that argument. It’s a rhetorical strategy that doesn’t depend on there being any actual faculty lounges.

At the risk of inverting****** the whole discussion, that rhetorical strategy has all the problems that the "woke" rhetoric Carville doesn't like might have.

(*see what I did there?) (**again!)

(***I can’t stop!)

(****there he goes again)


(******just stop.)


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