Politics & Media
Oct 11, 2010, 06:20AM

Liberal Elitism Is Not a Conservative Illusion

The upcoming midterm elections have put Democrats in an ornery mood.

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America

It’s not often that you encounter a politically and cultural left-of-center person who makes no apologies for his or her elitism. Michael Wolff, the iconoclastic columnist and author who may have more enemies than Bill O’Reilly, comes to mind. Usually, though, when someone’s accused of such leanings, he or she will protest, claiming that such a charge is downright outrageous. After all, the person inevitably points out, I contribute money to homeless shelters, mentor urban school children, might buy an electric car, vigorously support a government “safety net” for America’s disadvantaged and cherish the First Amendment, even if it means that Fox News is allowed to spew its venomous racism, Xenophobia and sexism 24 hours a day.

It could be that liberals—usually living in the Washington-Boston corridor or West Coast, but also in scattered urban areas throughout the country—are currently touchy, angry or frustrated, in the weeks before a likely Republican rout in the midterm elections. Unlike just two years ago when Barack Obama’s victory made the entire world feel fuzzy and euphoric, Democrats are despondent about the repudiation of everything they hold dear. The GOP was supposed to be a minority party for at least a decade, and this quick turnaround was not in the cards; after eight torturous years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove the current political environment isn’t fair. It’s the fault of poorly educated voters, who don’t understand they’re getting screwed by an entity some still refer to as The Man, and probably not reading about the impending electoral disaster on their iPads while waiting on an unemployment line.

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote a fairly measured column on the subject of elitism not long ago, and while he strained credulity by claiming “Arrogance and paternalism remain bipartisan attitudes… Elitism, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder,” he effectively singled out examples of Republican candidates this year who are using the elitism trope to rally voters. Carly Fiorina, for example, the extraordinarily wealthy former CEO running to deny Sen. Barbara Boxer reelection in California, has said the American Dream is in danger because of the “elitists” in the government, echoing physician/Kentucky senate candidate Rand Paul’s charge that President Obama “believes he knows what’s best for the people” and won’t brook opinions that stray from his living-in-a-bubble orthodoxy. And Weisberg takes 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain—“the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn’t remember how many houses he owned, accused his mixed-race opponent, raised by a single-mother and only a few years past paying off his student loans, of being the real elite candidate in the campaign”—to task for hypocrisy.

That’s a stretch: Obama, not yet 50, is a millionaire, and a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School. I don’t care for McCain—and it’s worth noting that the elite media fawned over him in 2000, when he ran against Bush in the GOP primaries, for his alleged “straight talk” and his First Amendment-busting advocacy of campaign finance “reform”—but let’s put an incontrovertible fact on the table: if Obama, a first-term senator, were white, he wouldn’t have won the Democratic nomination in 2008. Weisberg, who calls elitism an “epithet,” buries his own elitist bona fides in the middle of his column: “Arguments for raising taxes, expanding health insurance, and fighting climate change are all met with by the rejoinder [by conservatives] that some people should quit telling the rest of us how to live our lives.”

An Oct. 14 New Republic editorial, “The Price of Tea,” is representative of the elitist liberal ideology. “There’s a strain of schadenfreude that often masquerades as political strategy. It leads rational, thinking men and women [Democrats] to cheer on opposing parties that nominate seemingly unelectable radicals and lunatics for high office… Candidacies like the Tea Parties’ have historically had the effect of transporting issues from the provinces of cranks into acceptable political discourse.” This sniffy passage ignores that sometimes the “lunatics” elected, like Ronald Reagan (the man Jimmy Carter wanted to run against in 1980), are later celebrated for their immense contributions to American society. Sure, Christine O’Donnell—and don’t be surprised if she wins in Delaware, current polls notwithstanding—appears unqualified, but Sen. Scott Brown, supported by Tea Party adherents, has not embarrassed himself since his election earlier this year, and Florida’s Marco Rubio is a “rational” man who has the makings of an excellent senator.

I don’t really get what all the fuss is about, for liberal elitism is a just a fact of life in the United States, and it’s both silly that conservatives still complain about it and liberals insist it’s a fallacy. Does anyone really doubt, after decades of evidence, that most of the mainstream media favors Democrats in elections and government? Lucid Republican candidates and strategists have understood this for years: just as they can usually count on financial support from large corporations and smaller donations from conservatives in “flyover” states, they’ll never convince The New York Times, the television networks, unions or academia that their views are even worth considering.

Although my political views are economically conservative, I can roll with both the elites and non-elites. While living in Manhattan’s upscale Tribeca, I didn’t at all care for media-centric, networking parties where almost every attendee was on the same page politically. The Times’ nanny-state admonitions (and the paper has an ally in New York’s mayor Mike Bloomberg, who apparently stays awake at night thinking of more regulations that limit personal choices) are so far-fetched you’d almost think they were satirical. But of course that’s not the case, for the Times preaches to its readers to lead a politically correct life. On the other hand, I also lose patience when cultural conservatives proselytize about the evils of gay marriage and abortion, or the impertinence of immigrants wanting to live in the United States.

You learn to live with the condescension of liberal elitists (and yes, of course, elitism isn’t confined to the left; I doubt many fellows at the Heritage Foundation would feel comfortable taking a drink at a dive bar or sitting in the bleachers at a ballpark) and move on. And at times, at least in non-election seasons, there’s a lighter side to this basic schism in American society. A few years ago, for example, a young friend—a recent graduate from a prestigious university who marches in step with Kos, Paul Krugman and the anti-Murdoch website Media Matters—heard a Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys CD I was playing, said he dug it, and wanted a closer listen. All was swell until the song “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” written in 1941, came on, and he recoiled upon hearing these lyrics: “Little man sucks the blossoms, big bee gets the honey/Dark man picks the cotton, White man gets the money.” He was horrified, ignoring both the era in which the song was released and his own revulsion at some schools banning books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the word “nigger” is sprinkled throughout the text.

The splendid writer James Bowman summed up the essence of liberal elitism in his October New Criterion column, “Bien pensants, maudit peasants.” Bowman began his piece with a few comments about the summertime flap over the proposed construction of an Islamic community center a few blocks away from the World Trade Center ruins (a fading issue today, replaced by other crimes against intelligent thought, but that’s still the downside of a monthly’s leadtime.) Bowman wallops The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, who was indignant back in August about the mere existence of a controversy. “As Mr. Hertzberg was for [the Islamic center], so only fools or bigots (or, of course, both) could have been against it, in his view.” That would put me in the “fool” and “bigot” categories, as my own opinion was that such an endeavor, while worthy, might be constructed anywhere in Manhattan—close by, say on Canal St.—and wasn’t worth the understandable distress its proposed location would cause the families of those who perished on 9/11. I was repulsed by the demagoguery of opportunists like Newt Gingrich, to name just one, on the subject, but still think it’s a question of insensitivity.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, a talented writer whose purple prose is leavened by industrious reporting, is a more flamboyant representative of the media’s left-wing elite. In a long article on the Tea Party, based on three extended visits to Kentucky, Taibbi dismisses the loose confederation of frustrated Americans like this: “[A]fter a lengthy study of the [Tea Party] phenomenon, I’ve concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They’re full of shit. All of them… The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending—with the exception of the money spent on them.” Taibbi was struck that at one of the rallies he attended, where Sarah Palin appeared, giving him the “epiphany” that the “dingbat revolution… is nigh,” he didn’t spot a single black face in the crowd. That’s hardly surprising, since as of 2009, the black population in Kentucky was 7.9 percent.

One last note about my own brushes with liberal elitism. In the summer of 1973, as an 18-year-old anticipating college that September, I worked in a biology lab at Princeton University. My duties including mopping the floor, feeding the rats, emptying the trays of fecal matter and, once the students were finished with their animal experiments, disposing of the critters. One afternoon, I had to dispatch a bunch of monkeys and cats—using chloroform—outside the building near the garbage containers. It caused a stir among students milling about, and a number of them harassed me, yelling, “Animal killer!” It was a very weird moment: young men and women, just a few years older than myself, attacking a minimum-wage worker for doing his job, rendered further ironic by the fact that some of the protesters were, in fact, the very same people who were conducting the experiments on the animals. That’s elitism.

  • I'm not sure what is more off-puting, liberal elitism or the conservative "I'm one of you" hypocrisy.

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  • Whoo. That last paragraph is a zinger, considering the fuss over in vivo experiments today. I wonder if these politicians of both stripes know how distasteful they seem to many of us.

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  • The problem with both is that they are so incredibly transparent. I can't take any politician seriously anymore, because I know that in all likelihood their actions are motivated entirely by the desire to forward their careers. Gingrich, Palin, Obama, Reid, Pelosi, Romney, etc. etc. I could go on and on...I don't feel like anyone really believes in anything other than themselves anymore. Perhaps it was always that way. Elitism is reprehensible, but as Texan said, so are the manipulative tactics used by the GOP to make them seem more "relatable"/down to earth. I think fundamentally right now both sides are corrupt, and honestly look ridiculous. "Straight talk" is something I would like to see. Real straight talk.

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  • Re, your last paragraph — you're not a minimum wage worker now, though, right? I mean, you're my boss, and a fairly successful media entrepreneur. Surely that makes you an elite now, doesn't it? And if you are an elite (which I don't see how you're not), do you get a get-out-of-elite free card because you share some opinions with people who the media has decided are the not-elite? (Mostly the white working class as long as they don't belong to unions.)// As far as I know, the average income of Democrats remains lower than the average income of Republicans. Does that matter in this discussion at all? Or is it just about the cultural politics of something a bunch of idiotic college students said to you thirty years ago?

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  • Noah, the closing anecdote in my story was just that—an anecdote meant to illustrate that, in that case, academic elitism is nothing new. And yes, comparatively, I'm a member of the economic elite. But, at the risk of self-aggrandizement, I don't think I'm an elitist, in the same sense as the self-righteous and angry Washington/New York media/political crowd. And I share opinions with both liberals and conservatives on varying issues. My point was that liberal elitism has produced political correctness and an intolerance for anyone who doesn't share the same opinions. Republicans have their own problems; I don't think cultural elitism is one of them.

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  • You would do well to have a working definition of "elitism" before you started this scattershot column. You go from Heritage employees not wanting to go to a dive bar, to Matt Taibbi, to an anecdote about a bunch of hypocritical college students. Elitism is everywhere: liberals, this column, the business community, the media. No one holds a monopoly on elitism, and think otherwise is the stuff of anti-anti-elitism that goes nowhere.

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  • I should add that I'm not necessarily against your thesis — I am unconvinced, simply — but the manner in which it was argued.

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  • "an intolerance for anyone who doesn't share the same opinions. "// You think this is a problem especially of liberals? Really?// Also, and again, elitism looks a little different if white, working-class, nonunion workers aren't the only ones who can be considered non-elite. A lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-Muslim rhetoric, anti-gay rhetoric, and anti-crime rhetoric is essentially elitist; it's people who are better off or in a position of power sneering at those who are worse off. All of those could certainly be considered cultural elitism, and I'd say that they are definitely problems which conservatives have — though liberals are hardly immune either, of course.

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  • Incidentally, it seems quite possible that Wills was lifting those lyrics from a black source; they sound like old blues couplets, anyway, and Wills was of course obsessed with black music.

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  • I'd say that rhetoric aimed against gays, immigrants and Muslims isn't elitist, but rather a sign of insecurity. And isn't "anti-crime rhetoric" just common sense? I mean, who's FOR crime? As for Bob Wills, your point is what? I didn't say he was racist, and it's entirely possible he lifted those lines. Interesting, in later covers of "Take Me Back to Tulsa," like Merle Haggard's, the lyrics are changed.

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  • I just thought it was interesting about those lyrics. No broader point!// Anti-crime as a political obsession on the national level started as code for anti-civil rights activism and for racism more generally. That's continued down to the present to varying degrees.//And...why can't it be elitist and insecure? I don' t see why those should be incompatible!.

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