The tired trope of ghastly “liberal elites” is trotted out with such regularity that, by shear repetition, it has become a veritable article of faith, a nugget of received wisdom that explains all that is wrong with America. But for the stuck-up pointy-heads on the left, God would once again shed His grace on this great country, from sea to shining sea (not just the coasts home to you-know-who).
The echo of this bogus narrative ricochets off all corners of the body politic. Obama’s use of a lectern, Johns Kerry’s “French” looks, Elizabeth Warren’s Harvard association, etc. are all proof positive of liberal treachery. These interlopers, so it goes, aren’t like you and me. Their values are not our own. They’re not part of what Sarah Palin memorably called “Real America.”
The specter of uppity progressives is so irresistible that even otherwise thoughtful conservatives can’t pass it up. Joe Scarborough, the former congressman and host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC is no ideologue, but in a piece in Politico touching on the field of GOP presidential candidates, he writes: “If you’re a Northeast elite hoping to crack the code on GOP presidential primaries while impressing your friends at Fifth Avenue dinner parties with insightful political prognostications, always remember one simple rule: Crazy never wins.” Here the liberal is not just effete, but also pedantic. For his part, Scarborough, a native of Florida, now lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Populism is something of a national pastime—and a bipartisan one at that. Its antecedents go back to the country’s infancy when the Anti-Federalists argued that the Federalists were a “privileged, sophisticated minority” out to tyrannize America. While a nation born in opposition to monarchical excess may be expected to develop a certain obsession with aristocratic entitlement, today’s right-wing populism perverts this commendable disposition by channeling it to further entrench an economic aristocracy.
The tactic is common. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly asks, “Who’s looking out for you?” and it’s clear that he’s referencing the assault on regular Americans by “secular progressives.” The sleuthing done by him and his like uncover the list of indignities for which lefties are responsible, including a “War on Christmas.” The “liberal media,” the blowhards scold, pay no attention to such matters.
Canards come fast and furious—and ever more outlandish. Thus, the birthplace of the putative high priest of liberalism, President Obama, remains a source of speculation by prominent Republicans like Governor Rick Perry, while other stars in the conservative pantheon trumpet the “death panels” lie.
Perhaps the most outrageous allegation against Obama was unleashed by Rush Limbaugh. In a recent broadcast, the rabid talk radio host claimed that the president’s order to send 100 military advisers to Africa to help combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was done because the group comprises Christians “fighting the Muslims in Sudan.” The subtext was clear: Obama, a closeted Mohammedan, is waging a Jihad against Christians.
Except that the LRA has terrorized civilians for 25 years in central Africa. According to Reuters, “Over the years the LRA became known for chilling violence including what human rights groups say were the abductions of thousands for use as child soldiers or sex slaves, [and] brutal club and machete attacks on victims.”
Limbaugh quickly backtracked, admitting that he’d been “misinformed.” But was he? What matters here is narrative, not facts. Right-wing populism is like tabloid journalism: Attention grabbing, not attention to detail, is key. Thus, Limbaugh and other peddlers of misinformation win even when they get the facts wrong. Theirs is a nice little money earner that helps divert attention from that which really ails beleaguered Americans: right-wing fiscal policies. There’s a word for those who resort to these sorts of tactics for self-interested ends: elitists.
Last week, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report confirming, yet again, that levels of wealth concentration in the US has reached shocking levels. According to Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University, the top one percent of the American population enjoys a level of “material” power of income and wealth that is greater by a factor of fifteen than the bottom 90 percent of families. The same ratio for the top four hundred US taxpayers to the bottom ninety percent of the population approximates that for Roman senators relative to their society’s slaves and farmers.
Here’s a real story of elitism. But right-wing demagogues can’t be bothered. The holidays are approaching and Kris Kringle is again under siege from liberals.
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