The Elitism Myth and Right-Wing Populism

Election '04

February 2004: A commercial airs on Iowa television in which the then-front-runner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Howard Dean, was blasted for being the choice of the cultural elites: a "tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show" who had no business trying to talk to the plain folk of Iowa.

The commercial was sponsored by the Club for Growth, a Washington-based organization dedicated to hooking up pro-business rich people with pro-business politicians. The organization is made up of anti-government economists, prominent men of means and big thinkers of the late New Economy, celebrated geniuses of the sort that spent the past 10 years describing the low-tax, deregulated economy as though it were the second coming of Christ. In other words, the people who thought they saw Jesus in the ever-ascending Nasdaq, the pundits who worked themselves into a lather singing the praises of new billionaires, the economists who made a living by publicly insisting that privatization and deregulation were the mandates of history itself are now running television commercials denouncing the "elite."

That's the mystery of the United States, circa 2004. Thanks to the rightward political shift of the past 30 years, wealth is today concentrated in fewer hands than it has been since the 1920s; workers have less power over the conditions under which they toil than ever before in our lifetimes; and the corporation has become the most powerful actor in our world. Yet that rightward shift--still going strong to this day--sells itself as a war against elites, a righteous uprising of the little guy against an obnoxious upper class.

At the top of it all sits President George W. Bush, a former Texas oilman, a Yale graduate, the son of a U.S. president and a grandson of a U.S. senator--the beneficiary of every advantage that upper America is capable of showering on its sons--and a man who also declares that he has a populist streak because of all the disdain showered upon him and his Texas cronies by the high-hats of the East. Bush's populism is for real. His resentment of the East-coast snobs is objectively ridiculous, but it is honestly felt. The man undeniably has the common touch; his ability to speak to average people like one of their own is a matter of public record. And they, in return, seem genuinely to like the man. Bush shows every sign of being able to carry a substantial part of the white working-class vote this November, just as he did four years ago (although 90 percent of black Americans voted Democrat in 2000).

Right-wing Populism

There was a time, of course, when populism was the native tongue of the American left, when working-class people could be counted on to vote in favor of stronger labor unions, a regulated economy and various schemes for universal economic security. Back then the Republicans, who opposed all these things, were clearly identified as the party of corporate management, the spokesmen for society's elite.

Republicans are still the party of corporate management, but they have also spent years honing their own populist approach, a melange of anti-intellectualism, promiscuous God-talk and sentimental evocations of middle America in all its humble averageness. Richard Nixon was the first Republican president to understand the power of this combination and every victorious Republican since his administration has also cast himself in a populist light. Bush is merely the latest and one of the most accomplished in a long line of pro-business politicians expressing themselves in the language of the downtrodden.

This right-wing populism works; it is today triumphant across the scene; politicians speak its language, as do newspaper columnists, television pundits and a cast of thousands of corporate spokesmen, Wall Street brokerages, advertising pitchmen, business journalists and even the Hollywood stars that the right loves to hate.

Right-wing populism takes two general forms. What we saw the most of during the 1990s was the populism of the market, which has its origins in the PR strategies of Wall Street. Here the basic idea is that the free market is in essence a democracy. Since we all participate in markets--buying stock, choosing between brands of shaving cream, going to movie X instead of movie Y--markets are an expression of the vox populi. Markets give us what we want; markets overthrow the old regime; markets empower the little guy. And since markets are just the people working things out in their own inscrutable way, any attempt to regulate or otherwise interfere with markets is, by definition, nothing but arrogance.

When times are good, as they were a few years ago, this idea expresses itself in all manner of lurid evocations of the common man at one with his corporations. Television viewers in the '90s saw constant mini-dramas of the stock market as a maker of revolution; of little old ladies swapping investment tips; of bosses becoming one with the ancient rhythms of acquisitiveness; of little kids realizing their true selves through products and of ordinary people basking in the glow of all the fine new millionaires their investments were producing. Even Enron got into the act, comparing its campaign for electricity deregulation to the Civil Rights movement of the '60s. During the boom, politicians of both parties reached consensus on the idea that privatization and deregulation were the correct way to let the people have their say over matters economic; and newspaper columnists of every persuasion came to agree that every time they busted a labor union, a worker somewhere cried out for joy.

Backlash Against Liberals

But market populism doesn't play too well in hard times. It slowly retreats to the wings and yields center stage to the old, reliable populism of the backlash, the collection of gripes that faults leftists not because of their lack of faith in the free market, but because of the cultural monstrosities they have imposed on the good people of middle America: they have legalized abortion, stamped out prayer in the public schools and are now threatening to sanction gay marriage. Again the enemy of the common people is the liberal elite, and again they are identified as a class of intellectuals whose trademark sin is hubris, thinking they know better than everyone else. Again it is the little guy against a sneering, disdainful, cartoon version of the upper class; and again the main beneficiary is the Republican party.

This populism, ever present on the radio and on Fox News, is obsessed with the symbolism of the consumer culture. Instead of rebuking the powerful directly, it vituperates against the snobbish and delicate things that the powerful are believed to enjoy: special kinds of coffee, high-end restaurants, Ivy League educations, vacations in Europe and always, always, imported cars.

Against these maddeningly sissified tastes, backlash populism posits a true-blue heartland where real Americans eat red meat in big slabs, know all about farming, drink Budweiser, work hard with their hands and drive domestic cars. (In November 2000, the Democrats lost in the heartland but won in cosmopolitan California, New York and Massachusetts.) Why the focus on consumer goods? It switches the political polarity of class resentment: the items identified with the elite are also identified with people who have advanced degrees, a reliably liberal constituency. Liberals become the snobs, and Republicans become the plain people in their majestic millions. That right-wing oil millionaires in Houston or Wichita might also vacation in Europe, drink fancy coffee and drive Jaguars is simply not considered, as if contrary to nature.

The all-Americans despise the affected elites with their highfalutin' ways, and that's why they vote for plainspoken men like George Bush, or his dad, or Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon, that ultimate victim of East Coast disdain. Each of whom, once elected, did his level best to shower the nation's elite with policy gifts of every description.

The massive distortions and contradictions between these two right-wing populisms should be plain to anyone with eyes. (The founding conceit is the preposterous assertion that the upper class is a collection of leftists.) One populism rails against liberals for eating sushi and getting pierced; the other celebrates those who eat sushi and get pierced as edgy entrepreneurs or as consumers just trying to be themselves. One despises Hollywood for pushing bad values; the other celebrates Hollywood for its creativity and declares that Hollywood merely gives the people what they want. And yet the same organizations--often the same individuals--are advocates of both.

Why aren't these contradictions crippling for the right? Partly because liberals refuse to take backlash populism seriously. They simply don't bother to answer the stereotype of themselves as a tasteful elite, seeing it as a treacherous and obvious deceit mounted by the puppetmasters of the right. A smaller coterie of liberals don't bother with it because they believe that conservative populism is merely camouflage for racism, which they believe to be epidemic in the United States. The problem, they think, is neo-Nazis or right-wing militia types like Timothy McVeigh. That's the real expression of middle America, the thing we ought to be investigating.

I encountered a spectacular version of this pathology at a progressive gathering in Chicago. After listening to a devastatingly accurate critique of the media business, I stood up and pointed out that dozens of regular, church-going people across the Midwest shared the premises of the critique without knowing it--they simply mistook "liberalism" for the economic and corporate forces that actually do control things. I encouraged the speaker to make an effort to connect with those regular people and to try to turn their class resentment right-side up. I was corrected almost immediately by another audience member, who angrily said that she wanted no part of any effort to make an outreach to the Ku Klux Klan.

Truth In Stereotype

There is a grain of truth in the backlash stereotype of liberalism. Certain kinds of leftists really do vacation in Europe and drive Volvos and drink lattes. (Hell, almost everyone drinks lattes now.) And there is a small but very vocal part of the left that has nothing but contempt for the working class. Should you ever attend a meeting of a local animal-rights organization, or wander through the campus of an elite university, you will notice that certain kinds of left politics are indeed activities reserved for members of the educated upper-middle-class, for people who regard politics more as a personal therapeutic exercise than an effort to build a movement. For them, the left is a form of mildly soothing spirituality, a way of getting in touch with the deep authenticity of the downtrodden and of showing you care. Buttons and stickers desperately announce the liberal's goodness to the world, as do his or her choice in consumer products. Leftist magazines treat protesting as a glamour activity, running photos of last month's demo the way society magazines print pictures from the charity ball. There is even a brand of cologne called Activist.

Then there is that species of leftist who believes that being on the left is an inherited honor, a nobility of the blood. There is little point in trying to convert others to the cause, they will tell you, especially in benighted places like the deep Midwest: you're either born to it or you aren't. This species of leftist will boast about the historical deeds of red-diaper babies or the excellent radical pedigree of so-and-so, son of such-and-such, utterly deaf to the repugnant similarities between what they are celebrating and simple aristocracy.

Leftists of these tendencies aren't really interested in the catastrophic decline of the American left as a social force, in the drying up and blowing away of leftist social movements. If anything, this decline makes sense to them: the left is people in sympathy with the downtrodden, not the downtrodden themselves. It is a charity operation.

For them, having fewer people on the left isn't a problem that might one day affect their material well-being, cost them their healthcare or their power in the workplace. Those things aren't on the line for this species of liberal. Quite the contrary: having fewer people on the left makes the left more alluring to them. Superficial nonconformity is what the creative white-collar class values above all else, and the lonelier you are in political righteousness, the more nonconformist, the more rebellious you are. Standing up against the flag-waving masses is the goal for this variety of liberal. Being on the left is not about building common cause with others: it's about correcting others, about pointing out their shortcomings.

Like the American left, many Europeans also misunderstand American conservatism, and by assuming that politics in the United States works the same way as it does elsewhere--that material issues are important, that reason matters--they step blithely into the minefield of political symbolism and are promptly blown up. The most spectacular recent instance of this came during the UN debate prior to the war against Iraq. You will recall that the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, clearly believed he was making progress every time he slapped down some U.S. misrepresentation or pointed out some U.S. error.

De Villepin at the UN

Here he was, a well-dressed and accomplished man, soundly refuting the arguments of the Americans, speaking several different languages, even receiving open applause from the UN representatives of much of the world as he berated the U.S. Secretary of State, who stoically endured the abuse of his social superior, for this obvious error or that.

What the brilliant De Villepin missed utterly was that American conservatives don't care when their arguments are refuted. The United States is the land of militant symbolism, the nation of images, and in the battle of imagery Bush played De Villepin for a sucker. For Bush the task at hand was obviously not winning over the UN, but rallying domestic support for the war, and in doing so Bush couldn't have asked for a more convincing populist drama.

Saddam Hussein was a monster right out of central casting, and for opposing him the poor unassuming Americans were being castigated by this foppish, over-educated, hair-splitting, tendentious writer of poetry (De Villepin's dabbling in verse was much reported in the American media). And a Frenchman to boot! The French are always characterized in American popular culture as a nation of snobs: they drink wine, they eat cheese, they're polite. This man was the hated liberal elite in the flesh: all that was missing was the revelation that he wore perfume or carried a handbag.

In his erudite, principled opposition, De Villepin thus sold the war to Americans far more effectively than did Bush himself. Indeed, had the foreign secretary of any other nation led the fight against the United States, the war might not have happened. If Bush is really smart, he'll engineer a repeat confrontation with De Villepin just before the elections.

Meanwhile the genuine cultural power of the backlash goes unplumbed and undiscussed by political commentators. It returns promptly every four years, to deliver landslides out of nowhere and rightwingers where there should be leftwingers and grassroots anger where there ought to be contentment. Until the American Left decides to take a long, unprejudiced look at deepest America, at the kind of people who think voting for George Bush constitutes a blow against the elite, they are fated to continue their slide to oblivion. For Europe and the world the failure is costlier still, dooming them to the wars and the policy impositions of an America they refuse to understand.

Tom Frank is the author of "One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy" (Doubleday, New York, 2000).

This piece originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique.

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