Who Are They Calling Elitist?

Who Are They Calling Elitist?

Why do conservatives continue to feel oppressed by the “liberal elite”?


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.”

In observing the members of the conservative elite denouncing “elitists,” it can be difficult to tell your players without the proverbial scorecard. For instance, radio talk-show host and former conservative cable host Laura Ingraham has written an entire book about the dangers posed by liberal elites, Shut Up and Sing: How Elites From Hollywood, Politics, and the Media Are Subverting America. In it, this daughter of a Connecticut lawyer, a graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Virginia Law School who now lives in an expensive home in Washington, DC, distinguishes between liberal elitists and those she terms “true Americans.” She begins her treatise by explaining who these “elite Americans” are and what they think: “They think we’re stupid. They think our patriotism is stupid. They think our churchgoing is stupid. They think our flag-flying is stupid. They think having big families is stupid. They think where we live–anywhere but near or in a few major cities–is stupid. They think our SUVs are stupid. They think owning a gun is stupid. They think our abiding belief in the goodness of America and its founding principles is stupid.”

Ingraham is joined in her crusade by another ex-MSNBC pundette, the second-generation Connecticut lawyer and Cornell University alumna Ann Coulter, who rhapsodizes about red-state denizens, as Geoffrey Nunberg notes in his book Talking Right, “with the effusiveness of a fifth-grader reporting on a zoo visit”: “I loved Kansas City! It’s like my favorite place in the world…. It’s the opposite of this town. They’re Americans, they’re so great, they’re rooting for America!” “I love Texas Republicans!… Americans are so cool!” “Queens, baseball games–those are my people. American people.” Like Ingraham, Coulter distinguishes between “us” and “them” on the basis of attitude rather than income, though the multimillionaire does allow that “the whole point of being a liberal [is] to feel superior to people with less money.”

John Podhoretz, the son of neoconservatism’s second couple, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, who attended elite private schools and the University of Chicago before his father’s connections helped him secure jobs in the media empires of Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch, also professes to see America through rose-hued glasses. “Bush Red is a simpler place,” he explains, on the basis of a visit to Las Vegas. It’s a land “where people mourn the death of NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, root lustily for their teams, go to church, and find comfort in old-fashioned verities.” His comrade in anti-intellectual arms, former CBS News reporter Bernard Goldberg, who has spent a career working within what conservatives would call the “liberal media elite” and who wrote a book comparing his former friend Dan Rather to a “prison bitch,” has sworn off all association with liberals even when he agrees with them, he says, “because of their elitism. They look down their snobby noses at ordinary Americans who eat at Red Lobster or because they like to bowl or they go to church on a regular basis or because they fly the flag on the Fourth of July.”

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.

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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