The contemporary conservative obsession with the “liberal elite” has its origin in the campaign of 1964, when Ronald Reagan crisscrossed the country in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential aspirations, accusing liberals of believing that “an intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Richard Nixon took up the cudgel in his second State of the Union speech, complaining that “a bureaucratic elite in Washington knows best what is best for people everywhere.” But it was Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who, aided by speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire, showed right-wingers what political potential lay in this line of attack, with his orgies of alliteration regarding the evildoings of various “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “hopeless hysterical hypochondriacs of history,” “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “effete corps of impudent snobs,” to pick just a few of his favorite epithets for liberal opponents in the media and academia.
Since then, no right-wing campaign has been complete without some form of repudiation of what former Vice President Dan Quayle named the liberal “cultural elite,” whose avowed purpose is to undermine all that is admirable and virtuous in Middle America, or as Quayle termed it, “the rest of us.” (Asked to define the evildoers, Quayle responded, “They know who they are.”) Quayle’s addition of the word “cultural” to “elite,” coupled with his attack on a popular television character, single mom/anchorwoman Murphy Brown, was a stroke of genuine genius, as it allowed conservatives to continue to feel themselves oppressed even as they gained control of virtually all of the levers of political power in the United States and much of the news media. Liberals’ power, conservatives continue to insist, trumps political power because we allegedly control the “culture.” Today it is all but impossible to hear the word “liberal” without the word “elite” attached.
It’s hard to know exactly what conservatives mean by the accusation of elitism, as it appears to fit almost any occasion. If you examine the definitions offered by elitism’s accusers, the crime is apparently one of mind, akin to such offenses as “bourgeois sentimentality” or “rootless cosmopolitanism” in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Rush Limbaugh posited his success as an example of what he termed “middle America’s growing rejection of the elites,” which he defines as “professionals” and “experts,” including “the medical elites, the sociological elites, the education elites, the legal elites, the science elites…and the ideas this bunch promotes through the media.” Conservative pundit Peggy Noonan identifies “America’s elite” as “the politicians, wise men, think-tank experts, academics, magazine and editorial-page editors, big-city columnists, TV commentators” who had the temerity to oppose Bush’s ruinous war in Iraq. The qualities of the “big and real America,” from which George W. Bush (of Harvard, Yale and Andover) hails, are those that liberal elites would recognize as native to “another America, and boy has it endured. It just won a war. [Noonan was writing in early 2003, before the catastrophe that Iraq has become was apparent to all.] Its newest generation is rising, and its members are impressive. They came from a bigger America and a realer one–a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality.”
Conservatives did not, of course, wish to do away with “elites.” They merely wanted to replace them with their own. As John Judis pointed out in his book-length study The Paradox of American Democracy, “Instead of creating a new elite, they undermined what it meant for a country to have one. The new groups, in contrast to the old, did not seek to be above class, party and ideology. On the contrary, they were openly probusiness and conservative…. They did not seek to mediate conflicts but to take one side. They had no ties to labor unions or to the environmental, consumer or civil rights movements that had emerged in the sixties, but only to the business counteroffensive against them…. They did not seek to produce objective results by means of social science. On the contrary, they were willing to use social science to achieve partisan results.”