The Powerless Elite

By all objective standards, this ought to be a Democratic year. The recovery isn’t recovering. The national adventure in Iraq has not only gone sour, it is now clear to everyone that it was launched on a contrived and specious premise. Meanwhile, the president’s economic policies perfectly express the mean-spirited self-interest behind the conservative revolution that he leads, while he seems oblivious to the disaster. Besides, he didn’t win the popular vote last time around. John Kerry ought to be mopping the floor with him.

And yet it is George W. Bush who is drawing the adoring throngs in the dying steel towns and the hard-bitten coal-mining regions. It is his team that is always there with a comically vicious TV commercial or a well-targeted counterpunch. Even the falsehoods are breaking Bush’s way, with conservative lies stirring up damaging doubts about Kerry’s service in Vietnam and liberal lies about Bush’s days in the Texas Air National Guard reflecting discredit only on the bearers—despite the absence of any evidence linking said lies to the party. This election is beginning to seem like a terrible mismatch: the New England Patriots versus the squad from Ball State.

The reason, as ever, is the intensity and internal coherence of Republican populism. Beneath all the so-called issues, beneath the overpowering force of Republican organization, lies a simple idea: John Kerry is an “elitist,” as are all liberals, while George Bush expresses in his person and bearing the essential down-home nobility of Republicans. Liberalism is snobbery; it is weakness; it is rule by intellectuals and experts; it is the opposite of patriotism.

That Republicans were going to elitist-bait Kerry was obvious from the get-go, since they’ve elitist-baited every other Democrat to come down the pike for nearly 30 years now. The strategy is no secret, it is impossible to miss if you read even a single popular conservative book, and it would have been applied to whomever the Democrats chose this year.

The mystery is why Democrats have proved so vulnerable to the charge, and why they can’t fend it off even when it’s hurled at them in a hypocritical or self-refuting fashion.

One of the reasons Democrats are never able to mount a convincing comeback is because, at the bottom of their hearts, many of the party’s biggest thinkers agree with the “liberal elite” stereotype. They can’t simply point to their working-class base and their service to working-class America, because they aren’t interested in that base; they haven’t tried to serve that constituency for decades. For them, the real divide between the parties is—or ought to be, anyway—an industrial one: Republicans represent one sort of business and Democrats another; Republicans are Old Economy while Dems are New; Republicans represent square, repressive capitalism while Dems speak for the hip, creative, tolerant new breed.

In this new political arrangement, the working class is to have no role at all, except maybe as loyal and grateful employees of one or the other sort of enterprise. The constituency that such thinkers hanker after is “professionals,” upper-middle-class but sensitive voters who might support a Democratic Party that takes a liberal stand on cultural issues but who are also believers in free trade and the neo-laissez-faire economy. In such thinkers’ minds it is only natural that, say, steelworkers or coal miners would decide to vote Republican: Such people toil in old-school industries, survivals from the Republicans’ beloved nineteenth century, and it is fruitless for cool people like us to try to speak to them or understand their concerns.

“Many of the party’s biggest thinkers agree with the ‘liberal elite’ stereotype.”

The transition rightward in the Democratic Party was gradual, commencing under Jimmy Carter and gathering force all through the eighties. Democrats were simply no longer content, in this era of costly TV campaigns, to be the party of the outsiders and the have-nots. They wanted to play with the big boys, and ditch their thirties-era reputation as the “anti-business party.” By the end of the Clinton years, the leaders of both parties had essentially reached a point of consensus on the big economic issues: NAFTA, the WTO, welfare, deregulation, antitrust, even partial Social Security privatization. And although Democratic thinkers in 2004 would like to take credit for the New Economy boom of the nineties, they must ultimately share the limelight for that dubious achievement with hard-core conservatives like Ronald Reagan, George Gilder, and Newt Gingrich. Achieving economic unanimity with the GOP may have enhanced the Dems’ respectability among the professional class, but it also means that dissent, at least as we used to know it, has become a disrespectable and in some ways a forbidden pursuit; the anger and the sense of victimization that are out there on the edge of every town get channeled instead into the cultural realm, where the Republicans’ enormous alienation-harvesting apparatus awaits.

The GOP likes to refer to John Kerry as one of the most liberal Democrats of them all, but in fact he is yet another representative of the “safe” wing of the Democratic Party, a budget-balancer and free-trader (if you go to the “trade” section of his Website, you will find an essay feigning outrage at Bush for … not filing enough grievances with the WTO) whose triangulating instincts led him to vote Bush the authority to prosecute the Iraq War and thus cripple any effort to use what ought to be, after all, the strongest Democratic issue of the campaign.

It is true that Kerry enjoys an easy rapport with the much-coveted professional class, but he just can’t seem to turn it on with the party’s traditional working-class base. (Which may also explain the campaign’s boneheaded inclination to keep populist powerhouse John Edwards in the shadows.) Kerry’s politics may jazz the centrist D.C. pundit set, but they will serve the candidate poorly as the campaign heads into its final month and the emphasis shifts to getting out the vote. Like all the triangulators before him, Kerry will have little to offer his base on November 2, few incentives to mobilize them apart from the candidate’s simply not being George W. Bush.

Nevertheless, for some of the party’s big thinkers, 2004 is turning out to be the year that all their fence-mending paid off. Consider, for example, the flurry of stories that appeared a few months ago in which Democratic brass enthused over the venture capitalists and Silicon Valley industrialists whose donations were promising to erase the Republicans’ longtime advantage in political fund-raising. Their enthusiasm was so contagious, evidently, that certain journalists were moved to borrow from management theory to describe the shift. Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai told readers that the heroic millionaires coming to the Dems’ rescue “have come to view progressive politics as a market in need of entrepreneurship, served poorly by a giant monopoly—the Democratic Party—that is still doing business in an old, Rust Belt kind of way.” All that was needed was a little free-market magic, a little reengineering, a little outsourcing, a little de-unionization maybe (at one point Bai refers to labor leaders as “union bosses” whose time has come and gone), and this lumbering dinosaur could be transformed into an agile competitor.

Not that Democrats should be turning away the votes or the money of anyone in these parlous times. They should be aware, however, that adopting the language of consultants, buyout artists, and billionaires isn’t an unalloyed good; that it just might complicate their claim to be the “party of the people,” not to mention infuriate certain members of their electoral base. A particularly egregious case in point is the item I noticed in a San Francisco city magazine about the efforts of the local beautiful people to raise money for Kerry, including a campaign to persuade the fashion-conscious to give up on expensive new shoes until the election is won. The story concludes with the musings of the wife of a prominent “VC” who has donated millions to the effort: “I tell my girls I’m investing their inheritance.” Words to get out the vote with, surely.

Were Republicans to settle on a single figure who embodies and even celebrates the “liberal elite” stereotype, they would do well to choose Richard Florida, the sociologist whose musings on urban revitalization are much revered by the Democratic Establishment. In particular, Florida is concerned with what he calls the “creative class,” an economic cohort whose hunger for art institutions, specially targeted tax cuts, and edgy urban bohemias must be fed, on peril of terminal decline, by cities across the land. These “creatives” are liberal in the sense that they like rock music and ethnic restaurants while shunning homophobia; they are an elite in that Florida says the rest of us must either service the cool people or die.

So when Florida advises Republicans to “stop sneering at the elites,” as he did in a Washington Monthly story back in January, he does so not because it is hypocritical or delusional of Republicans to pretend to oppose elites, but for precisely the opposite reason: GOP anti-elitism genuinely scares elites away. Florida reminds us of the blockbuster movies that have been filmed overseas since Bush took office and the high-powered academics who have moved to countries where stem-cell research is less heavily regulated, he protests the shabby treatment meted out to scientists visiting the U.S. and decries the visa troubles experienced by “the Bogota-based electronica collective Sidestepper,” and he generally laments the “disastrous economic consequences” of Bush’s “Know-Nothing views.” The global creative class is “highly mobile and very finicky,” and by loudly proclaiming their Middle American populism, the GOP has committed precisely the transgression that Republicans have accused liberals of for years: By failing to cater to these tasteful transnationals’ every whim, they have damaged our country’s ability to compete. That’s right: The problem with Republicans is that, in being so square, they aren’t pro-business enough.

A nice trick if you can pull it off—and if you feel comfortable with the idea of bosses’ being better and cooler and even more rebellious people than their employees. For most Americans, though, I suspect that this is a fundamentally loathsome perspective, and my guess is that the tighter the Democratic Party hews to it, the more its troubles will grow. For me, the most disheartening aspect is watching this collection of bad ideas, crushingly discredited years ago in the economic sphere, be embraced so cocksurely by a party that ought to know better. And that would have every shot at winning if it would only follow its instincts.

The Powerless Elite