Two hundred and forty years ago, Americans fought the English aristocracy to secure their liberties. Today, as our bicoastal elites have achieved political dominance, we’ve succumbed to the powers of a new aristocracy. Three informative new books all deal with the politics of our ruling class.
Thomas Frank, who wrote the bestselling What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), admonishes the Democratic party for its residual moderation, and Roger L. Simon, a playwright and novelist and one of the founders of PJ Media, writes from a conservative perspective. They come at the issue from different angles but reach surprisingly congruent conclusions. “Today,” notes Frank, “liberalism is the philosophy not of the sons of toil” but of the winners in the “knowledge economy”: “Silicon Valley chieftains, the big university systems, and the Wall Street titans who gave so much to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.” Similarly, Simon shows how “moral narcissism has allowed the Democratic party to become a hidden party of the rich, thus wounding the middle class.”
Frank traces the origins of today’s liberal elitism back to the McGovern years and the influential arguments of Washington lobbyist Fred Dutton. Dutton’s book The Changing Sources of Power (1971) showed that the professional upper middle class, once a mainstay of the GOP, had in the Nixon years migrated to the anti-war wing of the Democratic party. Contemptuous of blue-collar America, the upper-end professionals wanted to become the party of the “aristocrats — en masse.” Likewise, Simon reflects on the ways in which liberal “compassion” became a “masquerade for selfishness, a way for elites to feel good about themselves” while insulating themselves from accountability.
Simon describes this masquerade as a form of narcissism in which “what you believe, or claim to believe or say you believe — not what you do or how you act or what the results of your actions may be — [determine] how your life will be judged.” Kim Holmes of the Heritage Foundation, in his new book, describes the same disconnect, in which words are judged independently of actions, but he calls it “postmodernism.” “The postmodernist Left,” he writes, “is radically subjective, arguing that all truth is merely a matter of interpretation.” And liberals, because they hold largely uncontested power in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and most of the media, generally get to decide which interpretation shall prevail.
Liberalism’s dreams of an American aristocracy, as I explained in my 2014 book The Revolt against the Masses, were integral to the modern ideology from its very inception in the aftermath of World War I. High-toned New Deal liberals looked down on Harry Truman, the Kansas City haberdasher, but liberal social snobbery emerged with full force in the Kennedyites’ open disdain for Lyndon Johnson. LBJ biographer Robert Caro described the denizens of Camelot as people who were “in love with their own sophistication”: They were “such an in-group, and they let you know they were in, and you were not.” “Think of the snotty arrogance displayed,” Caro continued, “as these people laughed at LBJ’s accent, his mispronunciations, his clothes, his wife.”
In the years since Kennedy, liberal politics has been driven by an alliance of the top and the bottom, the over-credentialed and the under-credentialed, against the middle. Liberals, notes the American-born British journalist Janet Daley, have taken on the pseudo-aristocratic tone of disdain for the aspiring, struggling middle class that is such a familiar part of the British scene. Rather than face up to the failures of the Great Society to fully incorporate African Americans into the general American prosperity, liberals have lost interest in social mobility: The aim now is to make the marginal more comfortable. (The problem is not solely with liberals: Social snobbery blinded most politicians to the rumblings that emerged as Trumpism.)
Bill Clinton, explains Kim Holmes, was strongly influenced by the political philosophy of John Rawls. When President Clinton criticized the welfare system as “trapping” people in poverty, he was, says Holmes, “trying to find a balance,” as Rawls did, “between liberty and the welfare state.” Thomas Frank will have none of it: Against those Democratic-party moderates who found Clinton preferable to the Republicans, he thunders: “Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils. . . . He was the greater of the two.” Frank denounces both the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform as perfidious acts, without providing empirical evidence to support his assertions.
Holmes points out that, in recent years, liberals have jettisoned any affection for the evidence-based arguments of the Clinton years and adopted instead an “epistemic relativism” that assumes that “all knowledge is expedient and politicized.” Holmes describes postmodern liberalism as “schizophrenic”: In the name of an identity politics advancing the interest of putative victims, it marries epistemological skepticism and the absolute certainties of politically correct posturing. Obama exemplifies this double game. Obama the cultural relativist, who is not a Muslim but has a strong affinity for Islam, insists that the Islam he encountered as a young boy in Indonesia was a religion of peace (even as he asserts that Western civilization should still be doing penance for the Crusades). At the same time, notes Roger Simon, Obama can say with great confidence that ISIS — the Islamic State — is not Islamic.
Frank has a point when he notes that the incestuous relationships among Hollywood, Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley that define the Obama years had already blossomed in the Clinton era. Frank quotes journalist Jacob Weisberg, who, as long ago as 1993, noted the “increasingly cozy relationship between the press, law, academia, and government.” “There’s rarely been a time,” wrote Weisberg in an article presciently subtitled “Washington’s New Ruling Class,” “when the governing elites were made up of such a tight, hermetic, and incestuous clique.”
But with Obama, the ties have grown even tighter. Ninety percent of the first Obama administration’s staffers had a professional degree of some kind; some 25 percent had either graduated from Harvard or taught there. The situation Frank describes is a government of, by, and for the increasingly self-interested professionals. When the Russians recently invaded parts of Syria, the worst thing the Obama administration could think to say about them was that their actions were “unprofessional.”
Clinton’s critics rightly bemoaned his close ties to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, formerly of Citibank, whose allegiance to the bond market was unrivaled. But something similar has happened under Obama, without receiving nearly as much notice. The current president speaks often of inequality, but he is exacerbating it with his misguided monetary policy. The near-zero interest rates imposed by Obama’s Fed have pushed profit seekers into Wall Street stocks, which have soared even as the Main Street economy has stalled because credit has become harder to come by. Parsimonious middle-class families and small businesses have been the losers in Obamanomics. In the midst of Obama’s moralizing about inequality, his presidency has actually produced a record-low level of new-business creation, while thrifty families facing retirement find that their savings earn them barely 1 percent.
“Nothing,” writes Thomas Frank, “is more characteristic of the liberal class than its members’ sense of their own elevated goodness.” The liberals’ need to repeatedly signal their virtue has become ever more tortured, as with the “civil rights” struggle for gender-neutral bathrooms. Roger L. Simon concurs, explaining that “purity of thought — mental cleansing of all possible bias — is demanded of the populace.” “We were living,” he writes, “in a form of dictatorship without knowing it . . . a dictatorship of elite moral narcissists who decided between right and wrong . . . before we could even begin to evaluate the facts for ourselves.” I think “dictatorship” is too strong a word, but the arguments laid out in these three books strongly suggest that our constitutional republic is imperiled as never before.
– Mr. Siegel is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a scholar in residence at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College.