Liberal Elite: A Myth in the Making
When it comes to co-opting the language for
political gain, conservatives often get the best of liberals. Over
the years, we have seen “law and order”, “family
values”, and “support the troops” become part
of the verbal arsenal of the right. We have seen the epithet “political
correctness” used to mock efforts to combat racism and sexism.
A current example of this phenomenon is the misuse by conservatives
of the term elite. It has become commonplace to hear ideas, individuals,
and institutions labeled as elite simply because they are perceived,
sometimes wrongly, as liberal.
There is some sort of irony at work here. The pejorative use of
the term elite has long been associated with the political left.
1956 saw the publication of The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills.
The classic work by the respected sociologist became a staple of
New Left reading lists. Mills held key positions in three major
institutions: the executive branch of the national government, the
military, and the giant corporations. Needless to say, it is not
these particular elites that concern our current crop of conservatives.
Indeed, with all three of government under Republican control, our
military exercising unprecedented unilateral power, and corporate
influence at its zenith, one wonders why liberals are not screaming
the dreaded “E” word.
Ah, but there are the other elites that concern our friends to the
right. Conservatives have complained long and hard about the “liberal
media”, but these days their anger is directed toward what
they call the “elite media”. Of course, one wonders
why Fox News and talk radio are not considered part of this elite.
Are such outlets lacking influence or are they just plain not liberal?
Most of us would agree that there is a powerful mainstream media
consisting of major networks, leading newspapers and news magazines,
but can anyone legitimately characterize it as liberal? It is true
that the majority of journalists employed by these particular outlets
are registered democrats and many of them do hold liberal views
on certain social issues, but does this translate into liberal bias?
A closer inspection would reveal that most of the views expressed
by these mainstream media elites are just that, mainstream. If this
elite media has a bias it is decidedly centrist on such issues as
global trade, the environment, social security, government spending
and campaign finance reform. While we are on the subject it should
be asked why these supposedly liberal media elites were reduced
to cheerleader status during the early stages of the war on Iraq?
What explains the anti-Aristide slant to mainstream reporting the
crisis in Haiti? Why was the so-called “elite media”
largely silent regarding the possible role played by the Bush Administration
in that particular regime change? As conservatives love to say “where
was the outrage?” Let us pause and reflect on the fact that
media power is increasingly concentrated in a handful of corporate
empires. An elite, yes, but liberal? Hardly.
Conservatives also argue that liberals are elites because they are
part of a privileged class that demonstrates disdain for the values
cherished by the majority of Americans. Thus, liberals are labeled
as “latte drinking, sushi eating…” you know the
rest. Yes, there are Americans who are privileged but are they all
that liberal? If there has been a constant star in our political
constellation it is that affluent Americans vote Republican.
This leaves us with the intellectual elite, perhaps this is who
the conservatives have in mind. It is true that the majority of
those traditionally thought of as intellectuals: writers, artists,
college professors, and the like have tended to be liberal. However,
conservatives have their intellectuals as well William Bennet, Michael
Novak, and various think tanks come to mind. This should come as
no surprise given the growing influence of the right in all aspects
of American society and culture. Incidentally, while we are talking
about educated elites we should note that the majority of college
graduates vote Republican.
Now, it is true that some liberals do come across as arrogant, snooty,
and condescending. We have seen them looking down their noses at
“beer-drinking, pickup driving, gun-totting, bible thumping
rednecks”. Do such liberal have a monopoly on snobbery? I
think not. I have heard many affluent, well-educated conservatives
speak with contempt regarding “tree huggers”, “women’s
studies types”, illegal “aliens” and striking
grocery workers. Sounds like elitism to me.
What conservative pundits are now calling elitism merely refers
to liberals expressing opinions that appear unpopular. The right
is not attacking elite opinion per se, they are attacking liberal
views by labeling them as elitist. Thus, if a liberal holds an opinion
on same sex marriage or the death penalty that is not embraced by
the current majority, he or she is an elitist. Using this logic,
anyone holding a minority opinion is an elite. Yet when conservatives
express unpopular views , as they frequently do on issues such as
abortion rights or gun control, they are never accused of elitism,
not even by liberals. Why not?
Perhaps it is too much to expect conservatives to cease their relentless
co-opting of the language for political use, but surely it is time
for liberal to call them on it. Only by fighting back can liberals
help bring about political discussion that is truly fair and balanced.