Politics & Policy

The Politics of Snobbery, and Its Inverse

A Clemson Tigers football player carries fast food as the 2018 College Football Playoff national champions are welcomed in the State Dining Room of the White House, January 14, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The peculiar partisanship of Chicken McNuggets

There is a longstanding myth that the two major U.S. political parties “traded places” on issues related to race, and that the debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — supported by most Republicans, but opposed by conservatives led by Barry Goldwater — was the pivot. But African-American voters already had moved to the Democratic party long before that (the last Republican presidential candidate to win the majority of their votes was Herbert Hoover, and they were voting majority-Democratic in congressional races by the middle 1940s), while affluent white suburbanites in the South started moving toward the GOP at about the same time for the same reason — the New Deal — a political migration that was not complete until the end of the 20th century. It is the case that the Democrats finally stopped being a segregationist party . . . a century after the Civil War.

The parties did not “trade places” on race. They have, relatively recently, traded places on class.

When Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented,” he was talking about a Republican-dominated city, as difficult as that is to imagine today. Philadelphia’s WASP-and-Quaker establishment was thoroughly Republican, the Union League was a force to be reckoned with, and the Democrats had their base in white ethnic Catholic neighborhoods. Other big cities such as Cincinnati also were at times dominated by Republican machines with politics that broke down along similar demographic lines, while the Democrats had Boss Tweed in New York City and the Pendergast machine in Kansas City. Chicago, being Chicago, was bipartisan in that it had two very functional graft-and-patronage machines.

Unlike the situation that prevails throughout most of the country today, the Republican party once was a genuine contender in the cities, but where it really dominated for an epoch was in the suburbs. With apologies for the unavoidable oversimplification here: The GOP was the party of big business, of the professionals, of the (at the time relatively small population of) college graduates, and of people who aspired to those classes; the Democrats were the party of farmers and other rural people, big labor, and blue-collar workers. The Republicans were the country-club party, and the Democrats were the union-hall party. In the well-off Main Line suburbs surrounding Philadelphia, newcomers were advised that they’d better register Republican if they wanted their garbage picked up. Those communities are very strongly Democratic now, even as the social and economic distance between the affluent suburbs and Philadelphia proper has widened.

The bedtime story that Republican party leaders like to tell themselves about losing the suburbs goes like this: “The Democrats did such a poor job running the cities that even partisan Democrats didn’t want to live in them anymore, but when they moved out to the suburbs, they brought their stupid political views with them.” There is a little something to that, but less than Republicans suppose. Libertarian and socially liberal Republicans tell themselves a slightly different bedtime story: That the Goldwater Prophecy has come to pass: “Mark my word,” Goldwater said, “if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem.” In this version of events, regnant Evangelicals and their superstitious atavism on abortion and homosexuals have cost the GOP the support of the more educated and socially liberal voters in the suburbs.

Of course the so-called Religious Right and social conservatism have cost the GOP some votes. (And won it some, too.) Of course demographic changes are a factor: In a country in which only whites’ votes were counted, the last Democratic president would have been Lyndon Johnson. But the argument that demography is destiny ignores the shifts and migrations among American voters. For example, Americans of Swedish and Norwegian origin once voted Republican as lopsidedly as African Americans now vote Democrat. That is no longer the case. Catholic voters were once the bedrock of the Democratic party; in 2016, they helped put Trump over the top, preferring him to Hillary Rodham Clinton by 4 points. African Americans once were almost monolithically Republican. Now they are almost monolithically Democratic. Asian Americans (a category so broad as to be of limited use) were within recent memory overwhelmingly Republican. Not anymore.

But, again, it’s complicated: Indian Americans and Chinese Americans look a lot like Democratic voters of other backgrounds: college-educated, affluent, coastal, less Christian, and less religious in general. Vietnamese Americans and Filipino Americans are less likely to be college graduates, less affluent, more likely to be Christian, more likely to live in the South or Southwest — and more likely to vote Republican. Trump beat Herself among Catholics — and Protestants, and Mormons, and “other Christians.” But among the fourth-largest religious group — those who identify as “no religion” — Mrs. Clinton won two-thirds of the vote.

The fact is that upwardly mobile college-educated suburbanites of many backgrounds have been moving en masse to the Democrats for some time. Meanwhile, the largely white rural population, particularly in the South — whose forebears would have sooner wrestled a bear than vote for a Republican — constitutes the new Republican base. In the cities and suburbs, Trump did much better among whites without college degrees.

Another way of saying this is: To the extent that the United States has a self-conscious proletariat, that proletariat is Republican.

*    *    *

This manifests itself in funny ways. On Monday, President Trump welcomed the Clemson Tigers, this year’s college-football champions, to the White House. With the government partially shut down, the usual White House hospitality was not on the table, and so the Trump team improved in a very Trump way: with a buffet of fast food from McDonald’s, Burger King, and Domino’s. The most normal thing about Donald J. Trump — the most American thing — is probably his taste for fast food. The man likes his KFC. This scandalizes the sort of people who today belong to what in some quarters is still known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party. Rebecca Jennings, writing in Vox, sniffed that it was “a strange choice, particularly for an event held in the 140-seat State Dining Room.” Perhaps Bresca was all booked up. The usual progressive complaints were made: The fast food was “disrespectful,” “classist,” and — heavens! — “racist.” Jennings quotes a Trump critic arguing that “a Big Mac served on a silver platter is probably the best metaphor for Trump’s presidency that I can think of.” (Somebody should tell him about that golden toilet up the street from Trump’s place, at the Guggenheim.) The Clemson quarterback, for his part, judged the spread “awesome.”

The reaction to those Big Macs says more about the difference between the parties than would a thousand white papers on marginal tax rates. The Democrats are bothered by the fact that Trump broke out the good china for such an unelevated meal. The bounder!

The Republicans, for their part, have devolved from the holier-than-thou party of the Moral Majority to the prolier-than-thou party of Donald Trump, the party that talks about the “Real America” in accents purporting to be Texan but native to no part of the Lone Star State, the party of Duck Dynasty and bad FM country music, the party of such daft rube-bait as “intelligent design,” and the party that sneers at many of the most successful parts of this country — Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Ivy League, Hollywood — as cultural sewers.

The Democrats have become the party of snobbery. Consider those endless fights over the treatment of evolution in high-school textbooks. Nobody seriously believes that if a high-school science teacher in Muleshoe, Texas, is legally permitted to mention heterodox views of evolution, in 20 years’ time Stanford and MIT will be intellectual backwaters. Those fights aren’t about science — do you hear progressives hounding the Washington Post about its horoscopes or lamenting Obamacare’s blessing of sundry New Age quackeries? — they’re about the loathing of those people. You know the ones: They care a great deal about football and eat at McDonald’s, love guns and Jesus, and probably voted for Trump.

The Republicans have embraced a kind of militant inverted snobbery: “Were you born in a barn?” isn’t a question your Republican mother asks you when you’re behaving poorly — it’s a question the Republican National Committee asks, hopefully, when it is thinking about backing you for Congress.

Things change in politics, and more quickly than you’d think. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 49 states; Richard Nixon had done the same thing twelve years before him. (Minnesota held out against Reagan, Massachusetts against Nixon.) It is difficult to imagine a Republican doing that today. I blame Rudy Giuliani.

In the Eighties, the Democrats were the party of dysfunction, having had their reputation seriously dented by the Carter era, with its stagflation and gasoline rationing. New York City, especially, was a basket case, having been ruined by a fiscal crisis in the mid Seventies. The middle class was moving to the (Republican) suburbs as fast as it could, crime was through the roof, Times Square was an emporium of pornography and prostitution, and, in 1990, the Democratic powers that be handed that mess over to David Dinkins, arguably the most feckless politician of his generation. And that was where the Democratic party was — where it lived, spiritually. New Yorkers, in desperation, turned to Republican Rudy Giuliani, a tough-guy prosecutor who promised to crack heads and make the trains run on time — the thinking man’s Frank Rizzo. How much credit Mayor Giuliani deserves for New York City’s renaissance will be the subject of debate for a generation to come, but there is no denying that he left the city a radically better place than he had found it. And many, though by no means all, American cities experienced similar renewals. Urban life came back into fashion, and, suddenly, there were neighborhoods in Brooklyn that went from “Don’t Go There!” to “You Can’t Afford It!” in a shockingly short period of time.

That had important consequences for culture, but also for business: Capital came home. As J. D. Vance points out, about 75 percent of all U.S. venture-capital expenditures go to three metropolitan areas: the Bay area, Greater New York, and Greater Boston. Industries with historically conservative cultures grew modestly or stagnated, while industries with more progressive cultures — technology above all, but also activities touching finance, culture, and international trade — not only boomed but came to dominate the economy. Those hippies at Apple owned the world’s most valuable corporation in 2018, followed by Google, Microsoft, Amazon . . . Johnson & Johnson and J. P. Morgan were the only two old-school American companies to break the top ten. The Democrats are still the party of the welfare state, but they are, more significantly, the party of billionaires and many would-be billionaires. It will be interesting to see that tension play itself out in a primary race between, say, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg.

And the Republicans? They’re the party of dysfunction — at least, the party of white dysfunction: the party of dead and dying agricultural and postindustrial towns, the party of oxy country, the party of resentment against all that wealth and power and influence that has accrued to the progressive coastal cities. It is also the party of the admittedly minority libertarian tendency and the party of the Chamber of Commerce, and the party of big business, at least of big businesses in industries predating the Eisenhower years. How that tension plays out in a contest between Donald Trump and — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, take your pick — is, for the moment, settled.

Policy is here a secondary concern. The obsession of the Democrats in 2019 is not foreign policy or fiscal policy or monetary policy but etiquette — that’s what all these Twitter-mob episodes are really about: Developing rules of speech and conduct of complexity and ferocity that would have baffled the court at Versailles. And the most successful Republican strategy in recent memory has been flouting that etiquette. That may do for a cycle or two. David Dinkins won in 1989.

The Democrats’ excessive pseudo-refinement is a tendency that will eat itself soon enough. You ain’t never woke enough, so woke that you can’t be out-woked by whoever is up next. But the Republicans have a different problem: There’s always room at the bottom.

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