The Powerless Elite: Liberals’ True Foe Is Their Love of Comfort

Like an allergy, the anathema of “elite” crops up, disappears and recurs depending on the quality of the political air.

Like an allergy, the anathema of “elite” crops up, disappears and recurs depending on the quality of the political air. But the original meaning of the term has been lost.

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“Elitism” as modern political curse originated with Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used it to refer to American Communists and fellow travelers. Since to become a Communist you had to at least read something and then think about it–unlike becoming a Democrat or a Republican–his definition of elitism was synonymous with intellectualism, by which he meant a sympathy for communism. When  people on the right throws around “elitist,” they are, like the authors of the “Contract from America,” engaged in an act of nostalgia.

Today’s anti-elitists are also blind to the true sociopolitical meaning of the word. In the classic definition of modern elites, constructed by three sociologists of the early 20th century–Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels–elites were those who possessed consequential power. They were the wealthy businessmen, the politicians, the generals. A stratum of efficacious figures is also what C. Wright Mills meant by the “power elite” in his influential 1956 book of the same name. The Tea Party notion that elites are characterized by a certain type of cultural pedigree would have made the original theorists chuckle.

In fact, the Tea Party’s identification of elites with cultural rather than political qualities is a Marxist idea. It was formulated by the socialist Antonio Gramsci, a rough contemporary of Pareto, Mosca and Michels. Gramsci believed that the people who make the culture, from journalists to playwrights, shape popular consciousness. Change the way culture represents the world, and you change the political system. (Mills Americanized Gramsci’s notion when in 1960 he called for a “new left” counterculture to combat the power elite.) When Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck et al. perform their rage against the liberal elite, they are attacking products of supposedly Ivy League schools who exert their influence by directing the culture. Yet when they declaim on the sanctity of family and church, they are following Gramsci’s counsel. They themselves are attempting to manipulate popular values just like the cultural elites they claim to despise.

Indeed, it was a Catholic conservative, Michael Novak, who published an essay in 1989 called “The Gramscists Are Coming,” advising the right wing to adopt Gramscist tactics to influence customs and conventions. He was reformulating culture as the means by which people get through their daily lives: the way they raise their children, understand good and evil, define the moment when life begins. He was defining culture anthropologically, not intellectually.

The result was Patrick Buchanan’s famous declaration at the 1992 Republican convention: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the cold war itself.” Thus while the New Left, inspired by Gramsci, made its “long march through the institutions” and haplessly proceeded to take over English departments in an attempt to reshape consciousness, Mr. Buchanan and President Reagan’s New Right, also inspired by Gramsci, made its more effective long march through the media in an effort to do the same. (This is why, currently, the right has Fox while the left has Comedy Central.) Both right and left, however, defined “elite” in cultural terms.

Funny thing, though. Liberals may be quick to point out the irony of the Tea Party being funded by the real elites–the ones with the most money–but they don’t like using the word elite to describe these rich bête noires. Liberals might titter and scoff at Ms. Palin’s taunts of “elitist,” but they secretly cherish the idea of being the true American elites. They would rather die than call a wealthy businessman a member of the “elite.” This is because for liberals, elitism consists of being above crass material considerations. And that’s why conservatives hate them.

In his seminal 1941 book The Managerial Revolution James Burnham observed that society was becoming divided into two classes: the people who owned the corporations, and the people who ran them. To simplify Burnham’s ideas, the former were concerned with making money, the latter with ideas about how to spend it. Mr. Buchanan was taking a page out of Burnham when he declared that “America’s great middle class has got to start standing up to the environmental extremists who put insects, rats and birds ahead of families, workers and jobs.” He was claiming that the industrious producers of wealth–which somehow had come to include non-energetic shareholders–had to stand up to the parasitical class of overeducated slackers who use wealth to pursue goals that add nothing to the nation’s economic well-being.

This kind of outrageous illogic drives liberals nuts. How can liberals be above material considerations? It’s liberals who want to strengthen the social safety net and want government to shore up small businesses with tax breaks and loans. It’s liberals who want to improve everyone’s material life for the sake of equality and justice.

But there is the rub. Even when they speak of improving material life, liberals are touting nonmaterial premises that lead to the nonmaterial goals of equality and justice. Conservatives talk concretely about lowering taxes to stimulate economic growth. Liberals talk abstractly about raising taxes to create an ideal. And so the dispute between conservatism and liberalism comes down to, in a mutation of Burnham’s formulation, materialists vs. nonmaterialists. Or to put the conflict in Mr. Novak’s and Mr. Buchanan’s terms: people who struggle materially and are burdened by the facts of life vs. people who take their material comforts for granted and think in abstract, ameliorative terms. Ordinary joes vs. elitists.

Deluded as it may sound, there is a psychological truth to this conservative aversion to idea-driven elites that gives their aversion its sticking power. It’s why, haughty and happy elitist that I am, I have such a soft spot for anti-elitist rhetoric. In the end, it doesn’t matter that liberal policies are driven by considerations of justice, while conservative policies are driven by considerations of wealth. Liberals are the party of ideas, and ideas have a certain entropic property. They flatter their originators. Being the proud possessor of a noble idea of change often makes it easier to accept things as they are.

This moral vanity of the liberal intellectual is what Peter Viereck was referring to in his 1955 essay exploring the forces that sustained McCarthyism. In “The Revolt Against the Elites,” he pointed to the “almost infinite smugness” of the liberal who “is forever making quite unnecessary sacrifices of principle to expediency.” You know what he means. When President Obama puts tens of millions more people on Medicaid without the courage to legislate federal subsidies for it, thus making the change at the expense of the middle class whose insurance premiums are now soaring–when such self-canceling policies rear their smiling faces, liberalism is proclaiming morally superior ideas without jeopardizing its status by acting on them.

Michels had a name for this entropic nature of organized good intentions. He called it “the iron law of oligarchy.” His law states that the power of every social group, no matter where it is situated on the political spectrum, will finally come to rest in the hands of a small number of individuals. More generally, Michels believed that every social group concerns itself most of all with preserving and maintaining its power. For Michels, conservation of power and status was the essential activity of any elite.

In other words, when Tea Partiers rail against the liberals’ complacent theorizing and high-flown insularity, they are inadvertently deploring the very qualities that keep liberalism toothless and ineffectual. What these conservatives hate about liberalism is really the inherent conservatism of liberal elites. Amen to that. In order to save what is precious in their elitism, liberals are going to have to destroy it first.

The Powerless Elite: Liberals’ True Foe Is Their Love of Comfort