Who Are They Calling Elitist? | The Nation


Who Are They Calling Elitist?

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In red-state America, explains the slumming blue stater David Brooks, "the self is small"; whereas in blue-state America, "the self is more commonly large." Unlike the citizens of the states that voted for Al Gore, according to Andrew Sullivan, they can even be trusted not to betray their country on behalf of Islamic terrorists. Yet while unelite America is wonderful in every way, it's just not a place where Laura Ingraham or Rush Limbaugh or Bernard Goldberg or Ann Coulter or John Podhoretz or Newt Gingrich or Peggy Noonan or Andrew Sullivan or David Brooks would ever choose to live.

This article is adapted from Eric Alterman's new book, Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America (Viking).

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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A telling aspect of the conservatives' attack on liberal elitism is their intense attachment to the very same elite liberal academic institutions they profess to detest. When George Bush tried to nominate his personal lawyer, Harriet Miers, a graduate of Southern Methodist University Law School, to the Supreme Court, conservatives had a collective conniption fit over her meager credentials. National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru called her "an inspiring testament to the diversity of the president's cronies." Former Bush speechwriter David Frum complained that for his old boss "to take a hazard on anything other than a known quantity of the highest intellectual and personal excellence" was "simply reckless." It was "an unserious nomination," whined John Podhoretz. "I'm beginning to think that this appointment was an expression of the president's contempt for the conservative intelligentsia," Andrew Sullivan complained. To top it all off, Robert Bork, the Yale man whose extremist views kept him off the Court in 1987, called the nomination "a slap in the face to the conservatives who've been building a conservative legal movement for twenty years."

No complaint was heard from these same fire breathers, however, when Bush caved in to their demands and dumped Miers for Princeton and Yale Law alum Samuel Alito. (This was the same President, you'll recall, who chose John Roberts of Harvard College and Harvard Law School to be Chief Justice of the United States and later nominated Ben Bernanke, a Princeton economist, to be chairman of the Federal Reserve.) Other commentators have noticed that in the anti-elitist Bush Administration, the plum positions are dominated by graduates of Swarthmore, Stanford, Harvard, Yale and Andover. One can see exactly the same dynamic at work on Bush's national security team. When Bush finally admitted the catastrophic direction his war plans had taken in Iraq, he kept Condoleezza Rice (provost, Stanford University), fired Donald Rumsfeld (BA, Princeton) and put Robert Gates (PhD, Georgetown University) in his place, and named Gen. David Petraeus (PhD, Princeton) head of US forces there. Petraeus was joined by Col. Michael Meese (ditto) and what Carter Malkasian, who has advised Marine Corps commanders in Iraq on counterinsurgency and who holds an Oxford doctorate (with a degree in the history of war), noted was the most "highly educated" set of advisers a US commander had ever assembled--at least in Malkasian's recollection. According to conservative anti-elitist prejudices, such educational contamination should disqualify a man from service, rather than recommend him.

Given the transparent hypocrisy of the "liberal elitist" charge, coupled with its shifting but always not quite definable content, one cannot help but be awed by the effectiveness with which it is wielded. The simplest explanation is that "elitism" has come to be perceived as a legitimate attack word by the right, without anyone really being able to define why. Remember: it's not about where you live, how much money you have, how many security guards you regularly employ, where you summer, what you drive, what you drive when you're driving whatever else you drive when you're not driving that, where you went to school or where you think people should have gone to school. Conservatives are as one with the people they so disdain on all of those scores. Rather, "elitism" has simply become a contentless cudgel with which to beat back one's opponents without the trouble of engaging their arguments. Nunberg notes that right-wingers have had remarkable success in pigeonholing liberalism as a "white upper-middle-class affectation."

"Just look, for example, at the way liberals are referred to in the media, even in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times," says Nunberg. "Wherever you look, the liberal label is almost exclusively reserved for middle-class whites. Phrases like 'working-class liberals,' 'Hispanic liberals' and 'black liberals' are virtually nonexistent, though 'conservative' is frequently used to describe members of all those groups. When the media are referring to members of the working class or minority groups who vote left-of-center, they invariably describe them as Democrats, with the implication that their political choices are shaped by economic self-interest or traditional party loyalty rather than by any deep commitment to liberal ideals. It's as if you can't count as a liberal unless you can afford the lifestyle. Liberalism is treated less as a political credo than as the outward expression of a particular social identity, like a predilection for granite countertops and bottled water."

It's quite a trick these right-wingers have pulled off, one that might even impress George Orwell. When they dislike a position, they deride it as "elitist," irrespective of the fact that it is supported by a majority of Americans. Personally, they enjoy exactly the same advantages as liberal elitists, but they insist that this does not matter, because they think about those advantages differently. When asked to define just what is so awful about the way liberals think, they fall back on a series of unproven--and ultimately unprovable--accusations of the kind made by totalitarian regimes against their dissidents. Somehow they've managed to persuade the so-called liberal media to repeat these same accusations, despite the rather inconvenient fact that they make no sense. In the meantime, they've managed to discredit virtually all of the people to whom they can successfully attach their wholly meaningless tag. It may not make much sense, but as the folks at American Express have taught us, success is its own reward.

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