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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Elitist Demagoguery

One of the hardiest of conservative attack lines on progressives is that they are elitists who dislike middle-class values and lifestyles, and seek political power to change them. In the most lurid versions of this fantasy, progressives are part of some international or even supernatural conspiracy to destroy the Great American Middle Class (listening to such rants, you would think that there’s no middle class in, say, Europe, or that Democratic voting behavior is unknown outside the upper or lower economic classes).
Laughable as this talk may seem to be to progressives, it keeps recurring, most strikingly in a recent column by the political-analyst-turned-right-wing-pundit Michael Barone that singles out gun policy and climate change as examples of “elitist” contempt and hostility towards the wretched middle class:

For liberal elites, belief in gun control and global warming has taken on the character of religious faith. We have sinned (by hoarding guns or driving SUVs); we must atone (by turning in our guns or recycling); we must repent (by supporting gun control or cap and trade schemes). You may notice that the “we” in question is usually the great mass of ordinary American citizens.
The liberal elite is less interested in giving up its luxuries (Al Gore purchases carbon offsets to compensate for his huge mansion and private jet travel) than in changing the lifestyle of the masses, who selfishly insist on living in suburbs and keeping guns for recreation or protection. Ordinary Americans are seen not as responsible fellow citizens building stable communities but as greedy masses, who must be disciplined to live according to the elite’s religious dogmas.

This is an amazing passage, eh? It asserts without evidence that the “liberal elite’s” attitudes on these two issues are not only universal, but have the character of religious faith–i.e., they are not based on empirical factors or values shared with “ordinary Americans”–and then suggests that they are motivated not by a desire to achieve any public policy goals (such as lower crime or a non-catastrophic economic future) but by a lust for control of the “sinful.”
By attributing these motives to the “liberal elite,” Barone creates a closed loop of dogma that can’t be refuted, and that makes any debate impossible. On firearms, the real goal of the liberal elite–“usually unstated,” Barone conveniently says–is to ban handgun possesion. Never mind that no leading “liberal,” much less all “liberals,” have actually proposed a total handgun ban. Never mind that the last two Democratic platforms have flatly pledged support for the “constitutional right to bear arms,” or that the most radical gun control measure ever proposed by a Democratic presidential candidate (Al Gore in 2000) was to license gun owners.
Worse yet, on climate change, the introduction of the religious metaphor for support for a cap-and-trade system detracts attention from the more fundamental issue of whether man-made-global-warming does or does not threaten to create a calamity–economic as well as ecological–that we would be wise to avoid. This is a factual question, not one of values or attitudes, and the most reliable scientific authorities on the subject conclude almost unanimously that climate change is real, potentially catastrophic, and increasingly difficult to mitigate. If the experts are right, then anyone who cared exclusively about the ability of Americans to maintain a traditional middle-class, suburban lifestyle, would be more agitated than an “elitist” who is fine with a radically scaled-back way of living.
Insofar as resistance to climate change legislation happens to be consistent with the interests not of “ordinary Americans,” but of a handful of industries whose share of the energy economy would be reduced by a shift towards non-fossil-fuel sources, not to mention the introduction of efficiency measures, Barone’s efforts to stir up middle-class hatred of the “liberal elite” is a classic example of the elitist demagoguery that Tom Frank so eloquently outlined several years ago in What’s the Matter With Kansas? Since few “ordinary Americans” have much reason to read Michael Barone, you don’t have to do much armchair psychology of the sort that Barone himself so confidently engages in towards the “liberal elite” to guess that his main object is to give malefactors of great wealth the warm glow of feeling an unearned solidarity with the masses.

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