Political Culture: Those Condescending Elites!

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Just in time for last weekend’s National Tea Party convention – an event which will be remembered mostly for the way Sarah Palin had her devotees eating (and the rest of us reading) out of the palm of her hand – a series of op-ed pieces arrived in the nation’s media comparing the Everyman Patriots down at Opryland with the snobbish, know-it-all progressives who currently dominate Washington. The Washington Post, whose editorial-page leanings seem to shift with every stiff breeze (or massive snowfall), published two such analyses/warnings over the three days of Nashville teabagging.

One came from the venerable columnist Charles Krauthammer, who, while cheerleading the coming “Peasant Revolt of 2010,” declared that President Obama and his fellow Democrats continue to push their too-liberal agenda because they don’t understand the lessons of Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts. Instead, he fulminated, they view the world only “through a prism of two cherished axioms: (1) The people are stupid and (2) Republicans are bad. Result? The dim, led by the malicious, vote incorrectly.” In this delusional Democratic view, he continued, “Liberals act in the public interest, while conservatives think only of power, elections, self-aggrandizement and self-interest.” And Brown’s victory can be attributed to the mouth-breathing public’s “anger and anxiety, a free-floating agitation that prevented them from appreciating the beneficence of the social agenda the Democrats are so determined to foist upon them.”

A couple days later, a University of Virginia professor named Gerard Alexander posed many of the same questions, but with less fire-breathing intensity, in an op-ed titled “Why Are Liberals So Condescending?” Previewing a speech he gave Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, he ticked off a list of four “major [liberal] narratives about who conservatives are and how they function”: the “vast right-wing conspiracy” of cynical politicians and opinion leaders who acquire power through deceit and trickery; the “rank-and-file [Republicans who] must be manipulated at best, or stupid at worst”; the idea that “Republicans win elections because they tap into white prejudice against blacks and immigrants”; and the notion that “conservatives are driven purely by emotion and anxiety — including fear of change — whereas liberals have the harder task of appealing to evidence and logic.”

Throughout his piece, which you really ought to read in full, Alexander’s tone remains level and reasonable, devoid of the pot-shots and name-calling so typical in Krauthammer’s work. As an unabashed liberal, I expected to come away from Alexander’s column feeling assaulted, even apoplectic; instead, I emerged from his litany of supposedly negative liberal beliefs thinking, “I agree with this completely — and the problem with it is … what, exactly?”

Indeed, with just a few words changed, virtually the same column could have been published by the New Republic or American Prospect as a celebration of liberal thinking. Of course, one of those words is in the piece’s title: the word “condescending.” Then again, the very idea that liberals – so frequently disparaged as bleeding-heart, tree-hugging, America-hating agents (and beneficiaries) of big government and wealth redistribution – should also be caricatured as “condescending” has always required an absurd twist of logic, a thought-warp that somehow manages to link the liberal concerns for equality of rights and opportunities to “elitism.”

That contortion can be traced to Republican message-shapers as far back as Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, who saw opportunity in the new demographics of Republican-friendly America in the ’60s – lily-white, increasingly Southern and Western, pro-Vietnam, religious at a moment when Time magazine was asking “Is God Dead?”, angry about desegregation, and suspicious that LBJ’s Great Society programs would disproportionately benefit people who (to put it charitably) were not like themselves. In that environment, GOP marketers decided that the path to populist success was to sweep their own party’s traditional base of country-club businessmen under the rug, and to paint those young, well-educated, “godless” (like Communists!), East- and West-Coast liberals who dominated ’60s culture as “elitists” who wanted to dictate your future and put an end to American (i.e., white male) exceptionalism. (“Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea,” Goldwater said, inspiring a brilliant LBJ campaign ad.)

It’s easy to see how this tactic succeeded. By the late ’60s and ’70s the Democratic Party was a noisy and restless amalgam of constituent parts – African-Americans, feminists, anti-war students, gays, immigrants, organized labor and the poor, all pressing loudly for more progress on their own agendas. And as everyday, working- and middle-class white Americans found it increasingly difficult to identify with the Democrats’ collection of movements, the Republicans played on their resentments, convincing many that every “win” for a liberal constituency – whether it was reflected in a legal victory (celebrated by conniving trial lawyers) or government spending (approved by lordly legislators who didn’t “share our values”) — was a “loss” for ordinary folk. Thus did the GOP – the party of the Chamber of Commerce, the oil companies and the military-industrial complex — talk millions into believing that any effort to lift the poor or oppressed onto equal footing had to be the work of smug “elitists” condescending to, and seeking to undermine the stature of, “real Americans.”

Opposition to such “elites” has become a defining characteristic of populist conservatism. The stereotypical villains float before us like ducks in a shooting gallery: Rich Hollywood types who push sex and violence on our children (while having the gall to use their celebrity as a platform for discussing their political beliefs). Smug, godless, maybe-even-Communist academics to whom we send our kids for four years of brainwashing. Lockstep-liberals in the media who report only one side of the story (when they’re not just making things up) and then think they’re so smart because they’re telling the stories, while we’re just watching and listening and (very occasionally) reading. And, worst of all, politicians who take it upon themselves to confiscate our hard-earned dollars and give them to people who don’t work as hard as we do, who don’t think or behave or believe like we do. According to the Republican playbook, these various “elites” don’t just think conservatives are wrong – they think they’re ignorant, or bigoted, or otherwise inferior.

The trouble was, and is, that such caricatures of “liberal elites” are bullshit. It’s true that liberals and conservatives have profoundly different attitudes toward the role of government in society, and toward the use of one person’s tax dollars to fund programs that benefit someone else. And it’s certainly true that, as a liberal ideologue, I believe that the liberal perspective is almost always both intellectually and morally superior to the conservative viewpoint. (While recognizing that conservatives feel exactly the opposite way, and that most moderates think both sides are taking this far too seriously.) But there’s a huge difference between confidence and condescension – and when your political philosophy is built on using the levers of government to correct otherwise-intractable societal imbalances and to achieve greater equality for all, that is by definition the opposite of the “elitism” that’s required to be “condescending” in the first place.

In his column, Krauthammer offered as further evidence of liberal “elitism” the fact that the Democrats’ cataclysmic loss in Massachusetts hasn’t dissuaded Obama from pressing forward on health care, climate-change legislation, and his other priorities. By his way of thinking, the GOP’s ascension in a couple of governors’ races and one senatorial election is proof-positive that the American people reject Obama’s agenda – yet the president insists upon flouting the public will, on the premise that he knows better and the people just don’t understand.

Let’s leave aside the fact that American democracy always reverts toward the middle after a one-sided election like 2008. The facts of that autumn, and the need for the new policies engendered by that landslide, remain the same today — even after Massachusetts, and even if the tea partiers believe it’s time to swing violently back to the right. As much as we all hated bailing out those bastards in the banking industry, and as repulsive as it is to watch the mutual butt-smooching and pocket-lining by Capitol Hill and Wall Street, the bailouts were still necessary in order to get the credit markets moving again for the sake of all Americans. As painful as it has been to watch the nation’s deficits and debt rise over the past 18 months, every reputable economist on both ends of the political spectrum still thinks the stimulus was worth the money and necessary to jump-start growth. As excruciating and often disgusting as the process of writing and passing health-care legislation has been, the insurance reforms contained in the final bills have (largely unmentioned) bipartisan support – and the government subsidies that enable the poor to purchase insurance not only constitute a major step toward building “a more perfect union,” but are our best hope (at least in the current political climate) for bringing down everyone’s insurance costs in the long run. And while shifting to renewable energy sources no doubt will cause our electric bills to spike in the short term, in the long term a government-mandated, carrot-and-stick approach to reducing carbon emissions remains essential to ensuring both our environmental future and our nation’s economic and political security.

It is justifiable to argue the specifics of these points – whether the time is right to impose cap-and-trade, whether a public health-care option is the only way to rein in the insurance industry, whether the stimulus should have emphasized tax breaks more than infrastructure spending. (In fact, it did – arguably to the economy’s detriment.) But to stoke the public’s rage at Wall Street for political purposes, to broaden the “liberal elite” narrative to incorporate the vulgar lie of health-care “death panels” – and to abandon the pursuit of compromise, or even the offering of serious alternative ideas, in favor of ensuring that no part of the elected majority’s agenda comes to pass … these are not conservative “ideas” that liberals ought to be taking more seriously. They are tactics which are not only unhelpful to advancing the nation’s welfare, but are actually worthy of the condescension Krauthammer and Alexander decry. (They’re not particularly likely to “lift American spirits,” either.) And that’s a fact that doesn’t require an elitist, or a rocket scientist, or a mind reader — or even a hand reader – to understand.

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