Politics & Policy

Liberalism’s Pessimistic Elites

Among the liberal establishment, there is gloom, selfishness, and demographic cynicism.

The liberal establishment has already rendered its verdict on the 2010 election: Voters are angry because they aren’t very smart.

“We have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on,” Sen. John Kerry says, “so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what’s happening.” Vice President Joe Biden argues that the Obama administration’s accomplishments are “just too hard to explain” to voters who are presumably too dim to understand them. Maureen Dowd writes in theNew York Times that Sarah Palin “has made ignorance fashionable,”while Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post discovers that the “dirty little secret” of American politics “is that most Americans don’t really know what they think about the issues that so animate the political conversation in Washington, and what they think they know about them is often wrong.”

The notion that voters are less than rational has been endorsed by President Obama himself, who earlier this month said that part of the reason “our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument do not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared.”

The pessimism of the liberal establishment about the capacity of voters to cast intelligent ballots in next week’s election is matched only by their doubt about the capacity of citizens to make intelligent choices in their own daily lives. The two pessimisms are closely related and go far toward explaining why liberal elites continue to cherish a vision of rule by beneficent experts not unlike that of the nine ranks of philosophical mandarins in old China, each distinguished by its characteristic button.

The belief that the common man is an idiot is the perennial cri de coeur of mandarinism. If most people are fools on whom “facts and science and argument” have little effect, it makes sense to deprive them (as discreetly as possible) of as much liberty of action and electoral leverage as practicable. It makes sense to enact laws that limit their freedom of choice and “nudge” them into making the approved decisions. It makes sense to outsource regulatory and purse-string power to administrative czars and quasi-independent bodies, to stimulus and bailout sages, to all those boards and commissions of experts which, being insulated from the power of voters to hire and fire their representatives, have proved to be less accountable to democracy than elected lawmakers and magistrates.

Yet the policies that make sense to the credentialed elites of mandarin-world are being questioned as never before by voters who appear to have had enough of them.

A recent Rasmussen survey found that 65 percent of voters “say they prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes” to “one with more services and higher taxes.” (By contrast, 70 percent of what Rasmussen calls the “political class” want “more services and higher taxes.” Another Rasmussen poll finds that most likely voters believe that “their representative in Congress does not deserve reelection if he or she voted for the national health care law, the auto bailouts or the $787-billion economic stimulus plan.”

The voters who have taken these stands may not be masters of public policy, but they are right to reject mandarin-world, for several reasons:

(1) Mandarin-world is grounded in a neo-Spenglerian vision of the decline of the West. The low cost of labor in China and India, the liberal elites reason, spells the end of American prosperity as we have known it; the idea that reliance on the country’s traditional creed of liberty and limited government will turn things around and lead to innovation, growth, and jobs is a fantasy. Instead the mandarins seek to reconcile Americans to European-style stagnation by imposing new costs and burdens on the economy. As a result of the health-care law’s fiats, some consumers may see their insurance premiums rise by more than 20 percent in the coming months. AT&T, Verizon, 3M, Caterpillar, and John Deere have already taken charges against earnings as a result of the law, which in addition to its other dirigiste provisions mandates a vast expansion in 1099-MISC reporting requirements that will soon entangle small businesses in a mass of red tape. And that’s just the beginning. In January, in what is being called “the biggest tax increase in American history,” the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are due to expire, and the death tax is to be recalled to life. Between now and 2016, an array of other taxes is to be phased in. In the gloomy future envisioned by the mandarins, a growing cadre of experts will divide an ever-shrinking pie while the rest of us wait in line for one of the president’s shovels.

(2) Mandarin-world encourages taxpayer-subsidized privilege. Even in hard times, the mandarins who have their fingers on the levers of the machine prosper. The Federal City, awash in stimulus funds, is the only boom town left in the country. Wall Street, after its wallow in TARP dough, is doing just fine. Public-sector workers, the Praetorian Guard of the liberal establishment, have never had it so good. If all power corrupts, mandarin power corrupts in a uniquely obnoxious way.

(3) Mandarin-world is founded on demographic cynicism. As much of the country looks forward to chastising the mandarins in November, the liberal cognoscenti are smiling in their sleeves. Demography, they believe, is on their side. Liberal theorists argue that as the number of non-Hispanic whites falls relative to the overall population, growing non-white minorities will continue to favor the Democratic party. Together with members of the “millennial generation” (those born between 1978 and 2000), they will guarantee a series of Democratic victories in the coming years. “While it is possible that the millennial generation [voters] may become more conservative as they age,” demographer Ruy Teixeira tells the Daily Kos, “evidence suggests that they are likely to remain largely progressive.” The “party of no” (as Teixeira calls the GOP) “has a limited shelf life.” Translation: A rising tide of minority votes will enable the mandarins to continue to enlarge the “progressive” public-sector-dependency regime. It is a deeply cynical argument, one that presupposes that many non-white Americans are not possible converts to the country’s opportunity culture and will instead remain sunk in the dependency culture of modern liberalism.

The pessimism of the liberal elites grows out of the paradoxical nature of their situation as apologists for mandarinism in a democracy. The mandarin who oscillates between government work and lucrative assignments from private firms eager to exploit his connections to the powerful; the banker whose bonuses are implicitly subsidized by a too-big-to-fail policy he has lobbied the state to adopt; the teachers-union bigwig whose grandeurs are underwritten by stinted schoolchildren “waiting for superman”; the progressive lawmaker who oversees the financial industry and accepts gifts from its tycoons — none of these potentates can reconcile the grace and favor he enjoys on account of his privileged relation to the state with his egalitarian professions of fairness. Dissimulation is the school of morose spirits; and the continuous practice of hypocrisy will in time degrade the tone of even the most sanguine mind.

The sourness of the elites sheds light on their dark romance with an Old World mandarinism in which the citizen (in Tocqueville’s words) is “accustomed to find a functionary always at hand to interfere with all he undertakes,” and a central authority that “says to him: ‘You shall act just as I please, as much as I please, and in the direction which I please.’” Mandarinism assorts well with the elitist’s low opinion of others’ potential and his conviction that he himself is always the smartest one in the room. At the same time, the power the mandarin derives from his policies does something to make up for the burden of dissembling he bears in selling his program to people who are not intelligent enough to appreciate the virtues of a directing elite.

Most people may not be geniuses, but smart people aren’t all that bright either. That is why Tocqueville, although he was himself a highly cultivated aristocrat and deeply learned man, argued that freedom is the best policy. He favored not the pessimistic mandarinism of Europe but the optimistic American faith that the citizenry should to the greatest extent practicable be left “free in its gait and responsible for its acts.” “It profits me but little,” he said,

that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life, and if it so monopolizes movement and life that when it languishes everything languishes around it, that when it sleeps everything must sleep, and that when it dies the state itself must perish.

Tocqueville’s wake-up call has seldom been more pertinent.

Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book Pathology of the Elites will be published next month.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published this year.


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