Where lurks the elite?—or why so many right-wingers hate “elitists”

Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, Baroness Rothschild—one of the Rothschilds, I assume—appeared on one of the network morning shows and told the host she considered Barack Obama an “elitist.”
When a wealthy member of the nobility throws the term around, you know it’s past it’s prime. As with most of the other labels thrown at Obama—fascist, communist, socialist—it means little more than “I think he’s a poopy-head!”
Or does it mean more? In a Washington Post column, Anne Applebaum suggests what’s really behind the term is resentment. It was one thing when Ivy League schooling and plum government jobs went to the blue bloods, the 400, the old money, but as society has become more meritocratic, people see Americans no different than them getting those degrees and those jobs—and that offends them. They resent it.
This sounds plausible. During the Clinton years, I noticed how many people in the local paper’s letter page would refer to him as “bubba”—apparently the fact Clinton rose from an Arkansas trailer park to the White House wasn’t a source of pride (in America, anybody really can be president!) but an annoyance.
Charles Murray, in another WaPo column, sees it differently: The “elite” who go to the Ivy League, get on the Supreme Court (overwhelming Harvard and Yale grads), run the government are still upper-middle class, living in cities or suburbs, with no idea how real Americans live (no real Americans live anywhere but small towns and villages, you see); the elite “may love America, but, increasingly, they are not of it.”
This one, I don’t buy. For one thing, it’s just as true of the old-money crowd, so why would the current “elite” be targeted for more scorn than their predecessors? For another, two-thirds of Americans don’t live in small towns and villages, as Murray admits, so why is that the only measure of “real” Americanness (I’ll come back to that). And while he argues the same elitism affects pundits and media figures of both right and left, the wrath of the public against “elites” is almost invariably right-wing and targets the left.
(Note: Bob Somersby of The Daily Howler argues that part of the problems he targets in the American media, as in this post, are that journalists are part of that new elite Murray identifies. While I agree with a lot of the problems Somersby has diagnosed over the years, I think the roots are separate from the elitism Murray and the Tea Party activists are complaining about).
Other possible explanations for the fear of elites:
•Conservatives hate being told what to do! The liberal elite are trying to dictate their lives!
A friend of mine has seriously argued this online; the obvious problem is that for all the right-wing talks about small government and freedom, it has a long list of rules it would like to impose: Stop being gay. Pray to the true God in school, even if he isn’t yours. Don’t photograph police tasering people. Give up any right to privacy. Stop having abortions. Stop using birth control. Stop being Muslim (this is, admittedly, a scattershot list of conservative proposals—I’m not claiming that all conservatives support all these things, so if you’re a right-winger who doesn’t, my apologies).
But of course, the kind of directives liberals favor—stop polluting, stop exploiting workers, stop selling tainted food—are different. Conservatives who might feel fine with the first list of suggestions—after all, government should be doing those things!—will have an entirely different reaction to a liberal agenda. And so it’s liberal elites they resent.
And the very fact liberal elites don’t agree with them or accept the Republicans as the only people entitled to hold power seems to rankle the right too; many of them seem fueled by the conviction that they are the way and the truth and everyone who doesn’t agree is doing the devil’s worth.
I don’t think the hatred for liberal “elites” just popped out of nowhere. It’s a theme conservative mouthpieces have been pushing for years. Murray’s article, for example, fits right in: Small town Americans are the true, mainstream Americans even if they’re a minority; people who live in big cities are decadent and liberal and don’t speak for America. I saw more than one columnist insist after 2000 that Al Gore hadn’t really won the popular vote because Bush actually won in a greater geographic area, and it was all rural and small towns, and New York doesn’t really count because it’s neither.
Or take Republican sock-puppet Ron Hart. In one 2008 column he gushed praise on Sarah Palin because she was a small-town girl in touch with small-town values, and that’s the real reason feminists hate her: They’re shallow bitches who moved to the big city and left their roots behind and so they don’t understand America the way she does.
Hart, I note, is a Tennessee boy who moved to New York to work with Goldman Sachs. He apparently does not feel this puts him into the same class of sell-out as all those evil feminist elitists and their hate for real Americans (nor did he seem to think that by his logic, sending Palin away from Alaska to DC would cut her off from her roots and turn her into the thing he hates).
The same attitude seeps into mainstream journalism too. One 2004 NYT article (written by Elizabeth Bumillier, IIRC) discussed, at length, how John Kerry spent his vacation windsurfing (A Rich People Sport!) in a Rich People Vacation Place, in contrast to Bush, the simple, plainspoken Texas farmer; the fact W was a multimillionaire child of wealth somehow slipped through the cracks. Likewise, John Kerry got a lot more press over having married a super-wealthy wife than McCain, who did the same.
I think press, pundit and propagandists who squeal about the “liberal elites” and emphasizing that they are not, and cannot be Real Americans are a huge factor. Layered on top of a time-honored American anti-intellectualism (which I was going to go into more, but I think this post is running long), coupled with the resentment Applebaum mentions and throwing it that income inequality in this country really has grown over the past few decades—well, I don’t think “liberal elites” are the right target, but I can see why so many people do.


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8 responses to “Where lurks the elite?—or why so many right-wingers hate “elitists”

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