Can you trust limousine liberals, those pointy-headed weasels whose contempt for God-fearing Heartlanders is only slightly less than that for disappointingly lukewarm moist towels handed out on first class flights or fish-farmed caviar? It is a bogus caricature, of course. Or is it?
Accusations of liberal elitism are a recurring motif, dating at least to “egghead” 1952 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and running through Jimmy Carter, portrayed as a wonkish buffoon, and the professorial Barack Obama out of touch with “real America.” The allegation echoes the Antifederalist claims that Federalists represented a “privileged, sophisticated minority, ready and able to tyrannize the people if their [form of] national government were ratified.”
But who are the real elitists?
Voting behavior provides some insight, as the propensity to favor conservative candidates is positively correlated with income. Just 25 percent of those with family incomes $15,000 or less preferred McCain in the last presidential election, while about half from families earning $100,000 or more pulled the lever for the Arizona senator (Obama actually edged out McCain in the $200,000-plus income bracket, defying historic trends). In other words, the likelihood of voting for a liberal presidential candidate rises as incomes fall and falls as incomes rise—a peculiar dynamic if liberals are so hostile to working-class Americans.
And what about conservatives?
Consider recent events. First, those purported protectors of the proletariat cried foul when the White House compelled BP to set aside monies to compensate victims in the Gulf. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann derided the $20 billion escrow account as a “redistribution-of-wealth” fund while her GOP colleague Joe Barton apologized to BP for what the 100-plus members of the Republican Study Group called the “Chicago-style shakedown.”
Meanwhile, Republicans refuse to extend unemployment benefits for 15 million jobless Americans facing the worst economy since the Great Depression. Even though there are five workers for every job vacancy, GOP leaders bang on like Henry Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life about rewarding lethargy, or worse. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Hey, it’s about time,’” crotchety Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said of drug testing the jobless. “Why do we keep giving money to people who are going to go use it on drugs instead of their families?”
Conservatives’ hostility to working Americans—yes, their elitism—is no revelation. The right, after all, has for decades championed trickledown economic policies that have helped create Gilded Age levels of inequality, with a third of the country’s wealth concentrated in the hands of the most affluent one percent. Since shamelessly catering to the Richie Rich set tends not to sit well with the Simpsons and other working-class Americans in Springfields far and wide, the right resorts to depicting liberals as cartoonish figures of derision, projecting onto them the elitism embodied by the right’s policies.
The left, then, would seem to be have a strong hand. Despite conservative efforts to depict them as haughty snobs, working-class Americans do not buy it at the voting booth. Nor is the right’s anti-government platform widely embraced. A recent New York Times poll found that fully 76 percent of Americans think the benefits from those quintessentially “big government” programs, Social Security and Medicare, are “worth the costs.” And how about those avatars of small government, the Tea Partiers? Sixty-two percent of them feel similarly.
We may all be liberals now but liberals are bafflingly timid in the face of a conservative onslaught that paints them (us?) as effete, officious, and downright un-American. Why is this so? Does it simply confirm Robert Frost’s definition of liberals as people so high-minded that that they refuse to take their own side in an argument?
There is a more ominous possibility. Liberals, or at least liberal leaders, may well lack the courage of their convictions because, at their core, they believe working-class Americans are unsophisticated rubes who cannot help but fall prey to culture war wedge issues. In other words, they are the elitists that conservatives make them out to be! How else can liberals’ meekness when confronted with allegations of snobbery be explained? They should ruthlessly push back, excoriating the right for its rank hypocrisy, its faux populism. But they don’t.
Yet there is an even more ominous possibility. Could it be that liberals’ spinelessness stems from their being only slightly less affluent- and corporate-friendly than conservatives, making the charges against them difficult to refute? Are our two parties really one—both run by and for elites? Surely it can’t be. It’s too awful to comprehend.