Reading Patrick Ruffini’s jeremiad against “the Joe-the-Plumberization of the GOP,” it suddenly struck me that Joe may well be the first full-fledged metapundit.
Here’s what I mean. 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.
Of course, more or less by definition, that means there’s no good reason to actually watch his webcasts or read his book, because his take is no more informed or illuminating than your own. (Indeed, it’s almost certainly substantially less so.) What Joe actually has to say is irrelevant; what matters is that conservatives purport to care, and give him a high-profile forum in which to say it. The last semblance of a link between the message and the identity of the messenger finally drops out completely: Joe’s entire significance lies in the decision to give him a microphone—and to give him a microphone not despite the fact that he’s not especially worth listening to, but because he’s not especially worth listening to. In that sense, he comes pretty close to the Platonic ideal of the “celebrity” as someone who’s “famous for being famous”: His stardom in the conservative movement is, paradoxically, its own lone rationale. Conservatives, self-declared foes of postmodernism, have finally produced the ultimate postmodern icon.