Beyond the Stereotype of the Liberal Elite

I was rereading a few articles by Joe Bageant. He wrote about many topics, but one stood out to me this time: liberalism. He sometimes uses liberals as the contrast to the stories he tells about his fellow Appalachians from his hometown. I realized he was using liberal in a specific sense, not uncommon in the US, at least in the mainstream.

I was reminded of how many different liberalisms there are, most of them having to do with the dictionary definition of the word as liberal-minded. In my previously reading another author, Domenico Losurdo, it took quite a bit of struggle to grasp his European perspective of liberalism, which I came to realize included and emphasized what in the US would be called conservatism. Maybe Losurdo is onto something, as I discovered looking at Pew results showing a significant number of Americans self-identify as conservative even as they hold stereotypically liberal views across the board, socially and economically.

Bageant was certainly not using a European perspective or thinking about complicating survey results. He never clearly defines what he means by liberal, but it became clear through his usage. He seemed to be using the category, in the American context, as representing people with all or most of the following:

1) White, ancestrally and/or culturally WASP, identified with the dominant culture and social order.
2) Native-born American, with unconscious or unadmitted tendencies toward nativism and ethno-nationalism, their loyalty ultimately being to the status quo of white America, multiculturalist rhetoric aside.
3) Mainstream, born into privilege along with relatively more power and influence, a part of the system and invested in the system.
4) Gatekeepers of the mainstream, defenders of the status quo, middle-to-upper class economic elite, well-educated intellectual elite, salaried professional employees in academia, media, and other respectable fields.
5) Secularists and atheists, critics of the lower classes and low culture.
6) Democrats, partisan voters, politically involved as activists, leaders, politicians, pundits, and talking heads.

It is the stereotype of the liberal elite. As a liberal, I don’t fit much of that. I question this stereotype, popular both on the far right and the far left. I’m not arguing that only I, as a liberal, get to define liberalism. My point is just that there is more to liberalism than a stereotype.

One of the problems is that many people who get labeled by others as liberal don’t self-identify as liberal nor necessarily hold strong liberal views, maybe even holding some rather illiberal views. I like to use Obama as a case in point. He doesn’t claim to be liberal. Liberal rhetoric aside, he doesn’t act overly liberal. If liberal rhetoric is all it takes to be liberal, then most people in this post-Enlightenment world are liberal. That doesn’t seem helpful in understanding liberalism.

There are many Americans, like myself, who identify as liberal or who otherwise consistently hold strong liberal views. Most of these people probably don’t fit the stereotype of liberalism. There are working class liberals. There are even poor liberals, some of whom are homeless or unemployed. There are liberals in prison and in ghettoes. There are liberals in rural farming states. There are disenfranhised liberals and radical liberals. All kinds of liberals in all walks of life.

I might go so far as to argue this is the silent majority of liberals. They aren’t the liberal elite and so they aren’t heard. The average liberal gets less attention than the average conservative, because the mainstream narrative portrays the average American as conservative. But polls don’t support this assumption, this stereotype of a liberal elite versus the conservative masses. In many ways, the masses are more liberal than the elite.

It was unfortunate that an otherwise insightful thinker like Bageant fell into that trap of political rhetoric. He was asking about how do we get the poor and working class to become better educated and informed. A good question, if framed correctly.

What Bageant didn’t note was that there are and always have been many liberals like me. I’m well read and put a lot of effort into undersanding the world, but I’m not an elite of any kind, especially not an intellectual elite. My mostly working class family arose out of poverty in recent generations and, working class myself, I’ve lived below the poverty line before and don’t live far above it now.

There is a whole new generation that has been hitting adulthood during this new century. They are more well educated and have more access to info (including alternative sources) than any generation in history. They also have high rates of unemployment and poverty. It is becoming ever more common to find people with college degrees working minimum wage. Relevant to the discussion here, this young generation is also more liberal than previous generations, whatever they may label themselves.

I’m not sure what Bageant thought about these people. Most young whites in many Southern states are also quite liberal, according to the data. Many of the bought Obama’s hype, but they are hardly a partisan stronghold of Democratic loyalty. In writing about his hometown, what Bageant doesn’t talk about are the younger generation, many of whom have left behind that world but have not forgotten it.

Bageant’s Scots-Irish kinfolk aren’t represntative of most poor and working class Americans. They are a sub-population under great stress, a population with a specific history and culture. Generalizations shouldn’t be based upon them. They aren’t the heartland. They are just one of the many dark corners, places growing ever darker as the following generations merge on the socially liberal big cities and metropolises.

In speaking of liberalism and conservatism, we need to look beyond the stereotypes of the past, whether or not those stereotypes ever corresponded to reality.

24 thoughts on “Beyond the Stereotype of the Liberal Elite

    • I understand that perspective and sometimes use it in my thinking, but I was pointing out that there are other perspectives. When the label of “liberal” was first used, it didn’t mean something so broad as what Losurdo means. The word has evolved greatly over time and quite diversely.

      Anyway, that wasn’t the focus of my mind and wasn’t the reason for my writing this. My mention of Losurdo was just a side comment to give an example of how differently liberalism can be portrayed, depending one’s historical, cultural, and ideological context.

      My main point was a response to Bageant’s use of the word. I was mostly just commenting on his writings, although with the mainstream in mind. I’m a big fan of Bageant, but it would have been nice if he had understood liberalism with more nuance.

      I wasn’t so much criticizing Bageant for this. I understood that he was using liberalism as a rhetorical frame. He probably had a more nuanced view of liberalism, but he sometimes spoke with a particular mindset to make a point.

    • In a sense, I wasn’t really even concerned about liberalism itself. I was more bothered by how the lower classes get portrayed as conservative and the white working class as right-wing. It’s as if we are supposed to believe that all poor people are some combination of ignorant bigots, corporate tools, and religious zealots.

      Sure, many such people exist, but I wonder if there might actually be more diversity of views among the dirty masses than among the elite. I don’t know. It seems to me that there is people of the same class aren’t interchangeable cogs in the machinery of the social order.

      Even limiting our focus to just white people: A working class Appalachian is not the same thing as a working class New Englander or a working class Upper Midwesterner. A farmer in a rural state isn’t the same thing as a cab driver in a college town or a factory worker in the rust belt.

      I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make. Other than using words more carefully.

        • I’ve struggled with understanding the history of liberalism.

          I don’t know what would be a too broad definition of liberalism. Early on, very few people were using the label. I have little sense of how quickly and widely it caught on as a word. But the ideology (or ideologies) it came to be associated with certainly were developing long before the word was used.

          I’m still not sure about Losurdo’s book. I do plan on returning to it, and so maybe I shouldn’t say any more about it for now.

          My reaction in this post was to the liberal elite. Why do they get the credit and blame for everything liberal? Just because they have access to platforms to make themselves heard?

          Just within the liberal elite, why do they get defined so narrowly? If we are to go with a broader view of liberalism, even if not to include American conservatism, I still think the liberal elite might best be thought in a larger context. This is particularly true as all elites are increasingly becoming globalized. There are few elites left that are tied to a single nation.

          What does the liberal elite look like on the world scale? Is it meaningful to speak of a liberal elite at that level? Or do all elites blend together when you move far enough to the top? What would Losurdo think about the global elite? Would he generalize them as being mostly and fundamentally liberal in the way he uses the word? I suppose he probably would.

          I really do wonder about the liberal elite. It is such a strange thing to my mind, how they get portrayed and the role they play. Who really is this liberal elite? Who and what do they represent?

          I’m just thinking here. Don’t take any thoughts I offer too seriously.

          • Well, I think you would probably talk about the contradicting elements in liberalism leading to about four or five US political movements, actually. So you have a liberal elite (they are real), but you also have working class and post-working class left liberals (a lot of sewer socialists and left Keynesians), you have right-wing liberalism–neo-conservatism and liberatarianism. The only really truly anti-liberal movement in the US is the religious right, who make a lot of noise, but actually never get their agenda completely.

          • That is probably a better way to think about it. To know who is liberal, it is interesting to think who is genuinely not liberal. Fundamentalists have fully embraced the reactionary position toward the Enlightenment project. They are fighting liberalism in a way no one else is. Maybe that relates to Bageant’s view. He was writing about a population that is heavily fundamentalist.

  1. The stereotype is enforced strongly for the political gain these days of the very wealthy and in the upper ranks of the Republican Party.

    They know it’s an effective strategy, alongside race baiting for their core demographic.

    • That is true for all narrative frames in the mainstream. They are used because they are effective. But they might also signify something deeper still, if you follow the threads back far enough to discover the forces at play.

      When liberalism first came on the political stage, there was a mess of ideas and agendas that hadn’t yet formed into a coherent system or set of systems. Only a few people initially embraced liberalism as a label for themselves. Did those earliest of liberals see themselves as part of a liberal elite? Did their opponents see them as part of a liberal elite?

      There were plenty of elites during the Enlightenment Age and during the early modern revolutionary era. Those elites had a disproportionate influence in shaping our world. But not all of them were liberals, not even in the broad sense. And many of the non-elites were the strongest and most radical of liberals who pushed forward liberalism more than most. If not for working class liberals, the American Revolution might never have happened. The liberal ideas really were forced into the public mind from below, at least initially.

      Why do we as a society forget about those early working class liberals? Why do we give all the credit and blame for our society for the later elites who co-opted the revolutionary movement? Why do working class liberals always get forgotten? Is it because they are so dangerous to the status quo? Is it that access to liberalism should be restricted to the elite who can act more responsibly in defense of the status quo? Put these crazy liberal ideas in the heads of the poor and we might have another revolution.

      The elite of both parties wouldn’t want to see that.

  2. On one hand, I do feel that the concept of a “liberal elite”, particularly when it comes to education is overblown and used ruthlessly to get the working class to vote against their own interests. There’s an elite – not in science, but in finance.

    On the other hand, re-reading, to an extent, I think the 6 categories generally have some degree of accuracy. It’s always difficult to generalize well because not everyone fits into the generalization, but the question becomes, how to describe people without generalizing to some extent.

    Maybe a seventh category of “working class progressive” would ameliorate some of your complaints here.

    I’d probably put the top 1% of people into their own category, because although small in number, they have a disproportionate influence over society.

    • I like skepoet’s last comment. That seems a useful way to look at it. There is a liberal elite, not something I’m denying. But liberalism is an odd thing that few seem to understand. Thinking about who isn’t liberal clarifies the issue.

      • I think that another reason why it works is because it works against the insecurities of the working class whites. The white working class knows that the cities are generally doing better than the rural areas and they see those living in the cities as being coddled by government, despite the evidence otherwise.

        There is no doubt a large, mostly white (although there are some Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics), upper middle class demographic that is well education, and generally lives a decent standard of living.

        To them, being white, Christian, has been the source of their superiority in a sense. I suppose it is galling for them seeing the relative prosperity of the East Asians, Indians, and other races as they make relative gains.

        That leaves them uniquely vulnerable in a sense, to being exploited by groups like the Koch Brothers. Their already existing resentments, combined with declining economic fortunes, and a very rational, clever special interest.

        It’s also the product of a very toxic culture. The US is very money-centric, much more than other societies. One’s sense of social worth is based on how much one’s income is to many people. Much more so than in Canada, Europe, and much of the rest of the world.

        The other thing that is very toxic is anti-intellectualism. The term “elite” refers not just to wealth, but also to education. There is the perception that people who are highly education lack “common sense”, or that what they learn is not of short-term practical value. But the end result is a culture highly contemptuous of critical thinking – again quite vulnerable to exploitation.

        I think that with Generation Y, this is changing, but with the existing generations, it’s become deeply a part of their heritage. This is especially true with the Boomer generation.

        • There are certain populations getting isolated in rural areas.

          These are mostly white people, extremely poor, highly dependent on welfare, and in some regions the most fundamentalist demographic in the US. They have become isolated from the rest of the America. They are isolated from the elite, but they also are isolated from the vast majority of the working class and the poor who live in urban areas.

          Also, these fundamentalists in rural Appalachia and the Bible Belt are disconnected even from rural working class and poor in other regions. Rural Iowans, for example, aren’t fundamentalist and instead many of them are Catholic.

          This ever shrinking population of rural white fundamentalists have an out-sized representation in the mainstream media and the American psyche. They symbolize something in the way an environmentalist points to near extinct species. They are miniscule population in the big picture, but politicians and pundits love to obsess over them.

          All of American society gets exaggerated into extremes. You have the poor rural white fundamentalists in the South. And you have the wealthy liberal urban elite in the coastal big cities. These two groups represent a few percentage points of the population. The rest of the population are left out of this symbolic polarization of political rhetoric.

          It is almost humorous, these stereotypes. I wonder if the poor rural white fundamentalists ever get tired of being used as pawns. Also, what about all the people who live in Appalachia and the Bible Belt who don’t fit this stereotype?

          I used to live near Asheville. I know there are many alternative types who live in that region. Appalachia and North Carolina has always attracted a lot of weirdos and radicals. The entire region is filled with kinds of crazy communes, intentional communities, and nudist colonies along with alternative small colleges, meditation retreats, and monasteries.

          There is an old tradition of progressivism, populism, and labor organizing in much of the South, particularly the Upper South. There is more to that population than reactionary politics. Plus, it always depends on what they are reacting to, whether the liberal elite or the corporate elite. Many a bloody fight has been fought in the Upper South against oppressive companies.

          That region has always been a powder keg. Conservatives take those people for granted at their own peril. Ultimately, even the poorest and most uneducated of backcountry whites will only be distracted by a liberal elite boogeyman for so long.

          There is a reason Appalachia produces scathing critics and radical thinkers like Joe Bageant and Wendell Berry. Give people some actual education and they can become real threats to the established power structures.

  3. You do have a point that these groups are shrinking.

    The very religious at least, are aging rapidly too and their younger children are not likely to follow them at all.

    I wonder what would the other groups be:

    – Suburban middle class: This group is predominantly white, typically right of center (want low property taxes, although can be socially liberal at times) and as hinted lives in the suburbs. Under attack too because of the policy decisions of the past few decades.

    – The former rust belt I suppose would form a group too. Harmed greatly by the decline of America’s manufacturing sector. Often end up in lower wage positions.

    – I suppose small towns could be considered yet another group?

    The large predominantly white upper middle class I’d say would be the top 10-15% of income earners in the US, so it’s a pretty solid group.

    Some are “business conservative” so to speak and tend to lean that way in their voting patterns.

    But there’s also a large left wing group as well.

  4. Class to has become an issue here in Canada.

    Toronto for example:

    Inequality seems to be rising everywhere at once it seems and it’s not good at all.

    Remember, the newspaper above I’ve linked is a right-wing (by Canadian standards) newspaper.

    Here’s one by the left:

    I suppose it’s much more hopeful here in Canada that both right and left are agreeing that inequality is a serious problem.

    It seems in the US, inequality has become a “left wing” issue of sorts, while the right views it as a good thing.

    • You have to understand that all of these issues are more complex than typically gets portrayed in the US MSM.

      What the political and media elite talk about doesn’t necessarily have much to do with what the average and below average American believes and values. If you dig a little bit, you can see a much different view of the real silent and silenced majority. So, the average American may not be so different from the average Canadian, even as the American elite is far different from the Canadian elite.

      Most Americans are concerned and becoming ever more concerned about such things as inequality and poverty. Also, a shift has occurred where now more Americans blame circumstances for poverty than blame the behavior of the poor.

      “The poll shows a significant shift in American opinion on the causes of poverty since the last time the question was asked, nearly 20 years ago. In 1995, in the midst of a raging political debate about welfare and poverty, less than a third of poll respondents said people were in poverty because of issues beyond their control. At that time, a majority said that poverty was caused by “people not doing enough.” Now, nearly half of respondents, 47 percent, attribute poverty to factors other than individual initiative.”

      “According to a new CAP poll, 71 percent of Americans:

      “… are much more open to diversity and more supportive of steps to reduce racial inequalities than is commonly portrayed in politics and the media. Furthermore, Americans are more likely to see opportunities from rising diversity than they are to see challenges. They understand the problems associated with inequality in society and strongly support new steps and investments to reduce these inequalities and expand economic opportunities. Although differences remain between rising communities of color and whites in terms of openness to diversity and support for new policies to close remaining social gaps, many of these distinctions are more ideological in nature and less about race and ethnicity.”

      “Two-thirds of likely voters say the American middle class is shrinking, and 55 percent believe income inequality has become a big problem for the country, according to this week’s The Hill Poll.

      “Only 14 percent of respondents said the middle class is growing and another 14 percent said it is staying the same, while an additional 19 percent said income inequality is somewhat of a problem for the United States. Only 21 percent said inequality was either not much of a problem or no problem at all.

      “Majorities across practically all income levels, and all political, philosophical and racial lines agreed that the middle class is being reduced, while the bulk of respondents in each category thought income inequality was at least a moderate concern.

      “…Close to 7 in 10 said the income tax system is either somewhat or very unfair — a finding that was supported among most ideological groups and income levels.

      “But voters are also far from convinced that a flat tax — like the one Texas Gov. RickPerry (R) proposed last week — was the solution to that problem.

      “A clear majority — 58 percent — said they favored a graduated income tax system, with only 35 percent backing the sort of flat tax that magazine publisher Steve Forbes pushed for during his 1996 presidential campaign.”

      “We found that the ideal distribution described by this representative sample of Americans was dramatically more equal than exists anywhere in the world, with 32% of wealth belonging to the wealthiest quintile down to 11% by the poorest (see Figure 3).

      “What was particularly surprising about the results was that when we examined the ideal distributions for Republicans and Democrats, we found them to be quite similar (see Figure 4). When we examined the results by other variables, including income and gender, we again found no appreciable differences. It seems that Americans — regardless of political affiliation, income, and gender — want the kind of wealth distribution shown in Figure 3, which is very different from what we have and from what we think we have (see Figure 2).

      “We understood that setting up an ideal wealth distribution is a rather difficult proposition, so in another task, we made things simpler (see Figure 5) and asked people to choose between two unidentified distributions (again under the veil of ignorance). The first option, unbeknownst to participants, reflected the distribution of wealth in America. For the second option we modified the distribution found in Sweden, making it substantially more equal (we referred to this fictional nation as “Equalden”).

      “We discovered that 92% of Americans preferred the distribution of “Equalden” to America’s. And if one were to assume that the 8% who preferred America’s distribution was made up of wealthy Republican men, he or she would be mistaken. The preference for “Equalden” was slightly different for Republicans and Democrats, and in the expected direction, but the magnitude was very small: 93.5% of Democrats and 90.2% of Republicans preferred the more equal distribution. While this 3.3% difference is substantial when we think about the economy of an entire country, if we look at it from the perspective of the gap between Equalden and the U.S., it’s clear that the similarity across the political spectrum is far more substantial than the differences. And once again, participant’s gender and income level did not produce any appreciable difference in this preference. ”

      “But a new Pew Research Center/USA TODAY survey suggests that, at least for the moment, the issue of how best to deal with poverty and income inequality – and whether the government should address these issues at all – divides Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party more than it does Democrats and leaners.”

      “The bitter rivalry between “establishment” and “Tea Party” Republicans in many southern states today reflects the bitter divisions within the white South that date back to the political battles between the low country plantation owners and the poor white farmers of old Dixie.”

      ““However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

      “According to the survey, 23 percent of people aged 18 to 33 are religious progressives, while 22 percent are nonreligious and 17 percent are religious conservatives. By contrast, only 12 percent of those aged 66 to 88 are religious progressives, whereas 47 percent are said to be religious conservatives.

      “Religion has long been co-opted by religious conservatives as a vehicle for political gain, but this study hints that the future of faith-based political advocacy could rest with the left-leaning faithful. Religious progressives already make up 28 percent of the Democratic party—this in addition to 42 percent that are religious moderates—a number that only stands to grow as Millennials age and begin to vote in greater numbers.

      “Religious progressives are also more ethnically diverse than religious conservatives, a fact that bodes well for the Democratic party as the country becomes more racially varied. And when it comes to economic issues, religious progressives are actually more passionate than other liberals about eradicating income inequality; the study found that 88 percent of religious progressives said that the government should do more to help the poor, more than any other group polled.

      ““This survey also shows that religious progressives are a more significant group than is usually assumed, and there is a strong social justice constituency among religious Americans that cuts across labels,” said E.J. Dionne, a Brookings Senior Fellow.”

  5. You do have a point that popular opinion is shifting in the US very rapidly, particularly after the 2008 crisis.

    But I would imagine that if you were to take similar results in Canada, or any of the European nations, support for egalitarianism would be even higher, as would support for social programs.

    But I agree that the gap between the 0.1% and the rest has been growing more and more. I think that it’s an inevitable effect of rising inequality. As the top becomes more wealthy, they totally lose the ability to empathize with those on the bottom.

    In truth, most Americans are progressives in their beliefs at heart when it comes to individual issues. But the problem is, even if that is true, unless that can be mobilized somehow, that’s not going to make a difference.

    • “In truth, most Americans are progressives in their beliefs at heart when it comes to individual issues. But the problem is, even if that is true, unless that can be mobilized somehow, that’s not going to make a difference.”

      There is the rub.

  6. There is a similar problem elsewhere in the world. Europe is suffering from severe austerity for example.

    But I get the impression that the average person is much better informed, much more aware of their society, and they are much better able to figure out who is really responsible for problems.

    On the other hand, if you think about it, perhaps the media portrays the extremes because most people do fall in between them in some regards.

    • Also, there is the factor of size. The US includes both a large population and a large geographic area, including an island state and some island territories. Most European countries are tiny in comparison. The US population is even vastly larger than a geographically large country like Canada, almost 10 times as large of a population.

      The US has extremes, but the extremes involve that large population and geography. It isn’t just extremes that are spread evenly across the country. It is extremes between vast rural areas and big cities that are often far apart. The extremes of Americans include entirely separate worlds.

      Part of the reason many Americans don’t see Obama as American is because he grew up on Hawaii, a different world as far as many Americans are concerned. This is also at core of why the US had a Civil War. Americans have never been absolutely sure that we all really do belong to the same country.

      The diversity of local governments also exaggerates this, as the US doesn’t have a single centralized government as most European countries have. The localization of government has a splintering effect in the US. During and after the American Revolution, the British made sure that such radical forms of local self-governance didn’t take fully hold in Canada.

      The US is a strange experiment.

  7. Canada is actually very rationalistic as well. Quebec in particular, but also there is an East vs Central vs West vs Aboriginal tension. It’s not to the same extent as the US, but it is there.

    I think that the fact that Obama is black plays a much greater role in how he is perceived than where he was born or grew up. To the political right, he will never be one of “them”. Their complaint against him is that he is Black. In other words, their complaint is that he exists. To much of White America, he will never have legitimacy because of that, no matter what he does.

    We should criticize Obama of course for his other actions, but his race is not the issue. It’s the fact that he has continued the policies of the Bush administration that are.

    There are other Federal nations throughout the world. Germany comes to mind. Certainly not the size and diversity of the US, but such nations do exist.

    The issue right now is that the cultural divisions are being used right now by the very wealthy to make themselves wealthy at the expense of everyone else, while those gullible enough to follow essentially become useful idiots for them.

    Earlier you mentioned that Americans are a lot more left of center. True, but when you look at election results for example, a solid 45%+ or so always vote Republican. That’s a pretty solid segment that is effectively being “useful idiots”.

    That is not to say that the Democratic Party is the solution (far from it, that party is quite corrupt), but it goes to show that although people may be individually left on issues, they can still be effectively used by the top 0.1%.

    There seems to be an inability, a collective inability to make the connection between the idea that the oligarchs are in control and that a vote for them or that supporting them will come at the expense of everyone else.

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