The qualifications of a Tommy “Dude” Vietor or Ben Rhodes that placed them in the Situation Room during Obama-administration crises were not years of distinguished public service, military service, prior elected office, a string of impressive publications, an academic career, previous diplomatic postings, or any of the usual criteria that have placed others at the nerve center of America in times of crisis. Their trajectory was based on yeoman partisan PR work, and largely on being young, hip, and well connected politically. I don’t think either of these operatives has a particular worldview or competency that would promote the interests of the United States. But they do talk well, know the right people, and are hip. Again, they have no real expertise or even ideology other than that.
Al Gore is said to be our leading green activist, and the Steyer brothers the most preeminent green political donors. But do they really believe in reducing carbon emissions to cool down the planet?
The 1 percent fetish is also not really ideological. Elizabeth Warren, one of its greatest supporters, is not just a 1 percent but a 0.1 percent grandee. Her house, habits, household income, past corporate consulting, and net worth all reflect a desire for profits and refinement not accorded to most Americans. Her life is about as much a part of the 99.9 percent as she is Native American. She is not worried about welders getting some work on the Keystone Pipeline or farmworkers put out of their jobs in Mendota, Calif., over a baitfish.
Ditto Paul Krugman. He is eloquent about inequality and about the sort of insider privileges that give so much to so few. But nothing about his own circumstances suggests that he lives the life he professes, as opposed to professing abstractions that psychologically make the quite different life he lives more palatable. Certainly, Krugman’s liberalism means that few care that he once worked in the Reagan administration, that he was a paid adviser to Enron, or that he has just taken a part-time $225,000 post-retirement job at City University of New York — one that, at least initially, requires no teaching. Given what CUNY is said to pay its exploited part-timers, the university could have offered 75 courses with the salary it will be paying Krugman. Or, put another way, Professor Krugman will make the same as do 75 part-timers who each teach one class — and thus one class more than Krugman will teach. Bravo for Professor Krugman to have marketed himself so well and to have earned all the compensation that the market will bear — and too bad for the part-timers, who don’t understand market-based economics, where there are winners like Krugman and losers like themselves who can’t earn commensurate hanging-around money. One last question: Is part-time teacher Krugman going to study the inequality inherent in the modern university’s exploitation of part-time teachers?
Such hypocrisy taxes Krugman’s supporters to find ingenious arguments for the idea that noble ends justify almost any means, and so they argue that Krugman’s advocacy for research into income equality trumps this minor embarrassment, or that he can be very rich and still fight the 1 percent, or that the salary in the metrosexual world of the Boston–New York–Washington corridor is not all that high. Of course, the CUNY billet is likely just a small stream that feeds into Krugman’s other sizable income rivers. Indeed, he more likely belongs not just to the 1 percent, but to the same 0.1 percent as Senator Warren, which he so castigates. When President Obama exclaimed that at some point one needs to know when one has made enough money, Krugman would have agreed. He could now put that agreement into action by donating his salary to double the meager wages of 75 part-timers, who, unlike himself, are contracted professors who really do teach and are not “generously” compensated.
Does the NAACP stand as our watchdog over racism? In theory, yes; in fact, not so much. The L.A. branch was quite content to overlook Donald Sterling’s sterling racialism, given his donations. Sterling apparently thought that supporting the local NAACP either was not antithetical to his racist sloppy talk and rental practices, or was a wise investment in progressive insurance.
Al Sharpton receiving a “person of the year” award from the same branch of the NAACP is no less absurd than Donald Sterling’s “lifetime-achievement award” — given that Sharpton is on record as an anti-Semite, homophobe, inciter of riot, former FBI informant, tax delinquent, and convicted defamer of a district attorney. But the NAACP brand nowadays functions much like our green culture, as a sort of way to display correct coolness. It surely would not go after Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonya Sotomayor — or Barack Obama — for either using racialist speech or denigrating others on the basis of race or tribe. Such a fact is widely accepted because it is just as widely assumed that the NAACP has become something fossilized, like Betamax in its waning days, as it existed for a bit longer because it had once thrived.
Too many modern liberal fetishes are predicated on the medieval notion of exemption, and should not be taken as anything much other than useful pretensions or smart career moves — something like joining the Masonic lodge in the 1920s in small-town America. Charter schools are bad, and troubled public schools are noble, but the coastal elites, whether at Sidwell Friends or the Menlo School, assume that they should not sacrifice their children on the altar of their own ideology. Diversions of Central Valley canal water from agriculture to fish are good, but diversions of Hetch Hetchy canal water from San Francisco to fish are bad. Dreaming about salmon jumping in a hot Central Valley river is a lot easier than bathing with recycled grey water three times a week.
Concern for the Sierra toad and frog should stop logging-road and mountain development, but incinerating fauna with solar mirrors or grinding up eagles and hawks in wind turbines is the necessary price of green membership.
The Koch brothers have allegedly polluted politics with their ill-gotten cash; the Steyer brothers have not with their coal money. The revolving door is what right-wing operators do, not what a Tommy Vietor or Peter Orszag does. Affirmative action is necessary to stop “old boy” hiring and power wielding, but the sort of incestuous D.C. relationships that the Carneys or the Rhodes brothers have (Jay Carney’s wife, Claire Shipman, is a senior correspondent for ABC News; Ben Rhodes’s brother, David, is the president of CBS News) are not what we are talking about.
The issues per se are not so important. No prominent progressive really believes that his children belong in a public school with the “other.” He does not wish to live in an integrated neighborhood in order to promote his notion of high-density, non-suburban racial assimilation. A Che poster does not mean you want to live somewhere like Venezuela and wait in line for toilet paper.
The liberal is not immune from the material allurements of the 1 percent. Whizzing off on a private jet or climbing into a huge black ten-mile-a-gallon SUV limo is no problem. You do not necessarily denounce all racist stereotyping, given that sometimes attacking friendly bigots could be a headache. Taking the Google bus with like kind instead of the messy public bus or the uncertainties of the commuter train does not mean you are against mass transit for “them.” You surely don’t want the Coastal Commission enforcing beach-access rights for hoi polloi when who knows how many of the 99 percent wish to walk right by your deck in Malibu. It would be like ruining your beach view with a wind farm.
Liberalism offers a wise investment for a politician, a celebrity, an academic, or a journalist, by letting him take out inexpensive insurance against a politically incorrect slip of the tongue. Donald Sterling almost achieved exemption by his donations to Democratic candidates and the NAACP and his trial-lawyer billions; he lost it by keeping his ossified Republican registration while being an old, sick white guy who said the sort of reprehensible racist things that one hears sometimes in bits and pieces from some NBA players.
So, in medieval fashion, liberalism serves as a powerful psychological crutch: You can be noble in the abstract to assuage worries of not being so at all in the concrete. It adds a hip flourish to the otherwise mundane pursuit of power, lucre, and influence that plays out on the golf course, at the Malibu party, in front-row seats at NBA games, or in the tony Martha’s Vineyard summer home. About three decades ago, sipping a fine wine at a Napa bed and breakfast, or getting the right Italian-granite and teak flooring, became a force multiplier of being loudly liberal.
If a liberal has a really nice Chevy Chase estate or Upper West Side brownstone or Tahoe summer home, it is important to sound all the more liberal. Or maybe it is just the opposite: You cannot sound credibly liberal unless you first have the correct liberal address and square footage. The joke is on us. Having lots of stuff and lots of money, while deriding the system that provides it, is perverse, but perverse in a postmodern sense: You fools love the free market, where you didn’t do too well; we whose parents or selves did very well in it don’t like it all that much. How postmodern — like guffawing that lots of smoke came out of that Gulfstream ride, or lecturing about inequality from Rancho Mirage or the back nine at Augusta.
We are told that the Kennedys, the Pelosis, the Kerrys, and others like them are noble because they vote against their class interests. But they really do not; they vote for them. Liberalism is now the domain of the elite, and antithetical to the aspirations of the upper middle class that lacks the capital and tastes of the 0.1 percent. The higher the taxes, the more numerous the regulations, the greater the redistribution, so all the more the elite liberal distances himself from those less cool who breathe down his neck, and the less guilty he feels about the growing divide between him and the poor he worries about, but never worries about enough to associate with.
Liberalism professes a leftwing ideology, but these days it has absolutely no effect on the lives of those who most vehemently embrace it. In other words, being liberal is professionally useful and psychologically better than Xanax, but we need not assume any more that it is a serious belief.