One of the Most Successful Right-Wing Myths of All Time: 'The Limousine Liberal'

The following is an excerpt from the new book Limousine Liberal by Steve Fraser (Basic Books, 2016): 

Limousine liberalism is the specter haunting American politics. That has been true and getting truer for the last half century. Nowadays, Hillary Clinton serves as “exhibit A” of this menace.

She’s an odd choice in some ways. As the metaphor vividly suggests, a thoroughbred limousine liberal should be to the manner born, a patrician of outsized wealth, socially connected, credentialed by the toniest prep schools and the Ivy League, raised to rule, who for reasons sometimes sinister and sometimes of excessive credulity has gone over to the dark side: a limousine liberal is history’s oxymoron, an elitist for revolution, working to undermine the ancient regime—or at least pretending to do so. Hillary Clinton was bred instead in far more modest circumstances. Her father owned a small fabric store outside Chicago. He ran a conservative home, demanding strict devotion to the frugality and work ethic of the respectable middle class. His daughter was politically precocious and had views congruent with her upbringing. Already by age thirteen she was out canvassing for Richard Nixon’s election in 1960. Four years later she volunteered for the Goldwater campaign, inspired by the fervent anticommunism of her favorite high school history teacher.

Then everything changed. She went off to Wellesley College and there encountered the civil rights movement, antiwar outrage, and the iconoclasm of the counterculture. The rest is history. While immersed in the antiestablishment upheaval of that era, however, she kept her eye fixed on the political mainstream. Now she and her husband preside over the Democratic Party, cultivate their connections to leading centers of global business and finance, and are worth multiple millions. Yet well before she announced her latest run for the presidency, she was being vilified for crying crocodile tears on behalf of the poor while pocketing mega-sums for her State Department memoirs. She might claim to like beer with a booze chaser, but she really prefers zinfandel. She flirts with rural folk, but she actually thinks of them as hicks, rubes, and rednecks.

Hillary Clinton has become, in the eyes of right-wing populists, the quintessential limousine liberal hypocrite. All the Tea Party favorite sons—Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Scott Walker—are long practiced in the art of limousine-liberal baiting. Tea Party bloggers tirelessly point out that Clinton might talk about sharing prosperity, make impassioned pleas for greater equality, but really means “that she will share YOUR prosperity and shared responsibility. . . . [T]hose of [you] who work hard will bear the burden of responsibility.” They calculate that husband Bill is worth $80 million and that Hillary controls $20 million, and note that their daughter Chelsea wedded a hedge fund operator who once worked for Goldman Sachs. “Money. Power. That’s what the Clintons are about. . . . You’ll notice that it’s always the super-rich who rage on about the need to share wealth, but they never, ever do. We’ve had enough hypocrisy over the last five years to last a lifetime.”

When Clinton finally ended the nonsuspense surrounding her 2016 presidential candidacy, the indictment grew fiercer. Right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer noted that “there’s something surreal about Hillary Clinton’s Marie Antoinette tour of sampling cakes and commons.” Along with many others, Krauthammer found her so stage-managed and packaged, even beyond the normal artificial confections that pass for politicians these days, that he asked, “Who can really believe she suddenly has been seized with a new passion to champion, as she put it in Iowa, ‘the truckers I saw on I-80 as I was driving here’?” Trying to position herself as a “champion of the little guy” was no easy sell “when you and your husband have for the last 25 years made a limo-liberal-Davos-world your home.”

While Tea Party partisans and conservative journalists have most aggressively deployed the limousine liberal stigma, others find it apt as well. Mainstream media outlet Bloomberg Politics reported that “Hillary Clinton the Populist Begins Courting the Plutocrats.” In a cynical age like the current one, everyone acknowledges the hypocrisy but most accept it as a form of realpolitik. Some are more put off. A leftwing journalist greeted the candidate’s newly discovered antipathy toward Wall Street with a gimlet eye. He observed that the Donald Trump “zeitgeist” had become infectious; that Hillary was pumping for money and with great success from the financial sector; that the Clinton Foundation had harvested $5 million from nine financial institutions that avoided prosecution for financial transgressions; and that a key campaign aide was an ex–Goldman Sachs executive.

From the other shore, Republicans who might otherwise shy away from too close an association with Tea Party zealots nevertheless are on guard against this loathsome enemy from the elite left. So, for example, when Bernie Sanders, the Vermont via Brooklyn socialist senator and rival of Hillary’s for the 2016 presidential nomination, spoke in Arlington, Virginia, in July 2015, the Young Republicans rallied in opposition. Observing that Sanders was speaking to “one of the most affluent liberal communities in the nation,” these ideologues of the free market and limited government caustically advised: “We certainly hope he encourages Arlington limousine liberals and ‘Mercedes Marxists’ to practice what they preach by pulling out their checkbooks and writing checks to Uncle Sam during his presentation.”

That neither Clinton nor Sanders hail from pedigreed zip codes is suggestive. Especially over the last half century you need not have grown up on the Upper East Side of New York, graduated Harvard Law, run a major corporation or bank, captained a leading metropolitan newspaper or national magazine, architected American foreign policy, and at the same time made common cause with those determined to overturn the country’s economic and racial status quo to get certified as a limousine liberal. How and why the social boundaries of that tribe have become so elastic is a story about the political and moral gridlock, the paralyzing cultural and ideological wars that have left Washington so dysfunctional. Here it is worth noting that had there been a Bloomberg Politics in 1936 commenting on FDR’s re-election campaign, its headline might have reversed the one about Clinton and said instead, “Franklin Roosevelt Plutocrat Begins Courting the Populists.”

Nowadays, the limousine liberal congregation is more promiscuous. It embraces insiders and outliers. When Al Gore hopscotches the globe in his private jet, stopping off here and there to declaim against global warming, or when he comes home to his Tennessee mansion with its outsized carbon footprint, he exposes himself as a limousine liberal, a hypocritical, “dyed-in-the-wool elitist” who can talk the talk but not walk the walk. Or so his critics say. Gore is “old money” compared to the consummately ambitious and nouveau riche liability lawyer John Edwards, whose sins were picturesque, more about lifestyle than abuse of power. Before Edwards descended into his own private purgatory, when he still was imagining himself a populist president, his notorious $400 haircut marked him as someone who “lectures about poverty while living in gated opulence,” a bona fide limousine liberal.

No political metaphor in recent American history—not even potent ones like silent majority—has enjoyed the longevity of limousine liberal. It remains part of the lingua franca of our political debates today. It has managed to mobilize an enduring politics of resentment directed against most of the major reforms of the last seventy-five years, everything from civil rights to women’s liberation, from urban renewal to the war on poverty, from gay rights to the welfare state, from affirmative action to environmental regulation. It remains at the heart of an aggrieved sense felt by millions that they have been passed over—their material needs ignored, their cultural preferences treated with contempt—by a cluster of elites that run the country.

It is impossible to understand the perseverance and passion of right-wing populist politics in America without coming to grips with this metaphor, where it originated, how it evolved, why it persists, and where it may be taking us.

Limousine liberal is also a surpassingly bizarre metaphor. It turns all previously recorded history upside down.

Conventional wisdom has it that ruling elites are inherently conservative. There is a ton of historical evidence to support that supposition going back millennia. Why wouldn’t there be? Aristocracies, oligarchies, and monarchies; feudal lords, slave owners, and sheiks; imperial overlords, Brahmin castes, and dynastic families; robber barons and Wall Street bankers—all spend their time defending the existing order of things, fending off angry insurgencies, building fortresses to preserve their ways of life and the social order over which they preside. That is to be expected. Yet in the face of what would seem to be a self-evident instinct to ward off serious social upheaval, to defend the status quo, the metaphor of the limousine liberal suggests just the opposite.

One reason the metaphor endures is that the limousine liberal is not pure paranoid fantasy, but has roots in economic, political, and cultural reality. The country’s economic, social, and racial institutions have indeed undergone profound upheaval and reform, especially since the advent of the New Deal. The moral “certainties” that once were taken for granted have for a long time now been subject to serious amendment, some even overturned entirely. And there is no question that elite circles have played a decisive if not the sole role in making all this happen. The limousine liberal metaphor is compelling in helping to depict what’s gone awry. 

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