Scott Brown Plays Trivial Pursuit

Among Senator Scott Brown’s many superb qualities as a campaigner is his mastery of Trivial Pursuit, Politics Edition. The Brown-Warren race is becoming a minuet of minutiae.

The Brown campaign is guided by the imperative that he should be seen as a regular guy fighting for other regular guys, and Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard elitist. That is the message even when Warren isn’t the target, as when he put aside the business of the senate to attack the Whole Foods grocery chain for its policy of selling only sustainable fish. According to the Boston Globe, Brown wrote a letter of protest to Whole Foods accusing them of “political correctness” and twice identified the plight of Massachusetts fisherman as being based on “uncertain science” (which is in some sense true of most science other than math theory, and loosely translated means “science I disagree with”).

Should Senator Brown ever be accused of negative campaigning, he can point to the positive message of the half-court basketball shot he hit recently in front of a crowd of excited children. That went viral on YouTube.

Back when Warren was a distant notion  the Democratic front runner was Alan Khazei. The effort to undermine Khazei was led by Brown (and Mitt Romney) consultant Eric Fehrnstrom with his anonymous (until he mistakenly launched one under his own account) tweets under the name “Crazy Khazei.”

And finally, the issue that has dominated politics like no other since Quemoy and Matsu, Elizabeth Warren’s heritage: Cherokee or not?

To quote a sage observer (okay, it was me) in The Daily Beast yesterday, “They’ve kind of looked for these rather trivial issues, and I think they’ve hit on this one. It’s a little bit like a Mel Brooks film. You keep telling bad jokes until you find one that people really laugh at.”

But just as I considered the political utility of the Scott Brown Radio Report in appealing to our moral intuitions, I think Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion can help us understand the value of the attacks on Warren’s and Harvard’s identification of her as Native American. The idea is raised (absurd, given her qualifications) that Warren was some sort of affirmative action hire. To the conservative mind the affirmative action connection violates the principle of fairness, since Warren might have gotten something she didn’t really deserve. Even if she is seen as completely qualified, the use of a tenuous and distant demographic characteristic to get ahead would be offensive.

The fact that neither Warren nor Harvard has mounted much of a credible response is the icing on the cake for a campaign built on the “I’m like you she’s a Harvard elitist professor” story Brown is selling.

So Senator Brown is not only playing Trivial Pursuit, he’s winning at it.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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