Having written and thought a lot about the 2018 United States (US) midterm elections, the first things I read each day (after my e-mail) are Taegan Goddard’s invaluable Political Wire and, of course, FiveThirtyEight.
On May 19, 2018, Goddard linked to this commentary by Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman. Waldman argues Democrats should abandon the “naïve” notion they will be able to win the votes of certain white Republicans (presumably once-Democratic voters who preferred Republican Donald J. Trump in the 2016 US presidential election) by showing them more “respect.” The fallacy, Waldman believes, lies in ignoring “where the belief in Democratic disrespect comes from and to assume that Democrats have it in their power to banish it.”
“The right has a gigantic media apparatus that is devoted to convincing people that liberals disrespect them, plus a political party whose leaders all understand that that idea is key to their political project and so join in the chorus at every opportunity.
“If you doubt this, I’d encourage you to tune in to Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio for a week. When you do, you’ll find that again and again you’re told stories of some excess of campus political correctness, some obscure liberal professor who said something offensive, some liberal celebrity who said something crude about rednecks or some Democratic politician who displayed a lack of knowledge of a conservative cultural marker. The message is pounded home over and over: They hate you and everything you stand for.”
If I may editorialize a moment, the sheer cynicism of this political strategy, while hardly new (McCarthyism, the Southern Strategy), is breathtaking. There is no substantive policy argument or coherent ideological framework being offered, only an ever-stoked resentment intended to pit one (non-elite) group against another, a devious bit of misdirection by an alternate elite trying to maintain political power. This, of course, in no way excuses those who all-too-willingly fall for this misdirection. Not to get overly (or overtly) Marxist, but this is a textbook example of “false consciousness.”
Waldman, a writer for the progressive The American Prospect and graduate of Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, calls the target of this resentment “snooty liberal elitism.” Note the magazine for which he writes and his elite education (is he a Philadelphian like me?); I have no evidence regarding his snootiness.
Of course, I myself hold strong liberal views and attended Ivy League and other top schools (Yale, Harvard, Boston University School of Public Health), ultimately earning two Master’s Degrees and a PhD. I defer to others to decide how “snooty” I am.
Hold that thought.
Returning to Waldman’s article, his argument resonated with me for multiple reasons.
First, I have also written about whether Democrats should focus electorally more on “whites without a college degree” (President Trump’s core supporters) or on a coalition of younger, college-educated, non-white, urban and women voters. If pressed, I would choose the latter, though it is not necessarily a zero-sum choice (e.g., the decision by Democratic leaders to zero in on Trump Administration corruption could have broad appeal).
Second, I had just been thinking about “elites” in the context of explaining the choices in my seven-day Facebook book challenge. While discussing the third book, I highlighted Christopher Hayes’ compellingly-readable treatise, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.
In Chapter 5 (“Winners”), Hayes attempts to determine who comprises the “elite.” The (self-serving, given the plethora of wealthy and powerful conservatives) right-wing view is that “elitism” is not “degree of power or influence, but rather their condescension, their worldview, their tastes, preferences, and cultural diet […] snobby cosmopolitans who look down on the ordinary Americans who unpretentiously and earnestly devote themselves to the bedrock values of faith, family, and flag.”
Need I point out that nearly all Americans value all three? I may be an atheist now, but I attended Hebrew School three days a week for six years, was Bar Mitzvahed and attended many a large family Seder. I adore my family, even if individual members at time drive me crazy and my definition is a bit looser. And while I love my country, I see its flaws and seek to repair them; my love is not unconditional.
Third, as a student of epidemiology, in many ways a quantitative offshoot of epistemology (how do we know and how much can we know), I am alarmed by the partisan bifurcation of information sources and accepted truths. It is not quite as simple as Republicans watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio, while Democrats watch MSNBC and listen to NPR, though as oversimplifications go, that is not bad. For the record, while I regularly watch MSNBC, I rarely listen to NPR.
But such resentments can only be a winning political strategy if the “facts of the case” are in constant dispute, if we choose only to believe (as opposed to know) what we learn from “our” sources. That is one reason I noted Waldman’s (presumed) ideology and education: I always “consider the source” of anything I read, watch or hear.
All of these issues—Democratic electoral strategy, conservative populist resentment, an untenable fractured epistemology—are fascinating and of vital importance.
And they only obliquely relate to what I am trying to say here.
Just bear with me.
In my first post, I presented two brief—and radically different—biographies. One was that of a “well-placed member of the coastal cultural elite,” while the other was that of “one of life’s losers whose ladder of opportunity is buried deep underground.”
Of course, this is my own bit of epistemological misdirection: both biographies are mine. I was trying to demonstrate both my story-telling style and the manipulative power of story-telling itself: both stories were, strictly speaking, true, but each included (and amplified) only those facts that advanced the story’s message.
Upon reflection, though, I think that particular choice of stories (and my book project) unwittingly revealed my own ambiguity about my identity. Much of my ambivalence (a term my psychotherapist loves to use) stems from my adoption at that time by that particular family, a sense bordering on guilt of how extremely (unfairly?) lucky I was.
Even within this blog, I have evinced this ambivalence. I literally mentioned that I attended Yale in the very first sentence of my post arguing that “we are not our resumes.”
You cannot make this stuff up.
So what does this identity ambivalence have to do with conservative populist resentment at snooty liberal elites?
(Actually, the question pretty much answers itself.)
What most galls me is that it is nothing more than reverse snobbery. Whereas I do not “look down on them,” they clearly despise me…without ever meeting or otherwise getting to know me (I have been called a “libtard”—a term both ridiculous and highly offensive—more than once on Twitter).
It is also factually incorrect.
While I have, through both native ability and extremely hard work, earned my Ivy League and other degrees, I am hardly a member of the elite.
In his “Winners” chapter, Hayes expounds upon what he calls “fractal inequality.” One illustration: the economic distance between the bottom 99% and the top 1% is the same as that between the top 0.01% and the top 0.99% (both within the top 1%), which is also the same as that between the top 0.0001% and the top 0.0099% (both within the top 0.01%).
As Hayes describes it:
“Such a distributional structure reliably induces a dizzying vertigo among those ambitious souls who aim to scale it. The successful overachiever can only enjoy the perks of his [or her] relatively exalted status long enough to realize that there’s an entire world of heretofore unseen perks, power, and status that’s suddenly come within view and yet remains out of reach.”
Something very much like this happened to me when I arrived at Yale in September 1984. I had always been one of the smartest kids in my class, even at a high school recognized for its academic excellence which regularly sent a few dozen graduates to the Ivy League and other top schools.
Yeah, I had no idea what being smart meant.
I had classmates who could play complex musical passages solely by ear…and were mildly surprised that I could not (though I did once work out the opening chords to The Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New” on my portable electronic keyboard). My colleagues in the Yale Political Union had an astonishing mastery of debating techniques and policy details. One classmate (now one of my dearest friends) understood mathematics (and seemingly everything else) at a level that made the rest of look like kindergarteners.
Basically, while I ultimately found my niche and performed well at Yale (cum laude, distinction in the major), I was average there. And while it helped launch what became my health-data-analysis career, that career was far from lucrative, though I suppose some of my Boston-inflated salaries were respectable.
Speaking of which, let me end where I started, with whether “respect” should be part of a winning electoral strategy.
To begin with, EVERYONE deserves respect by virtue of their basic humanity.
But to the conservative populists who think that America is somehow not great because of me or folks like me or what they think folks like me are like (or something), I observe that that respect goes both ways. You need to respect my triumphs and tragedies as well.
And do not for one minute think that my respect implies any kind of acceptance of retrograde and regressive beliefs.
Simply put, I will not overlook for the sake of electoral victory…
….the scapegoating of immigrants (undocumented or otherwise), Muslims or other non-white-Christian citizens: if you want my electoral respect, please show respect for everyone who does not look, sound or worship (o not worship) like you.
…the denial of basic science and the scientific method in the service of some half-baked conspiracy or religious doctrine: if you want my electoral respect, do not insult my intelligence or, for that matter, your own.
…the elevation of unborn fetuses over the lives of women: I am absolutely going there—if you want my electoral respect, stop objectifying, degrading and diminishing women, not only through anti-contraception and anti-abortion legislation but also through harassment and violence. Here I channel my late mother who firmly believed that if men could become pregnant, abortion clinics would be as plentiful as CVS or Walgreens.
…a preference for firearms over human beings: if you want my electoral respect, set aside your anti-government paranoia and mitigate my call for Amendment II repeal by taking serious steps to halt the US epidemic of gun violence (school shootings; police shooting unarmed civilians; homicides, suicides and accidents). I do not want your bleepity-frick guns, but neither do I want them anywhere but in your homes and on licensed shooting ranges.
…and any other latent or blatant racism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, ignorance and/or outright paranoia: if you want my electoral respect, take a long look in your own conscience first.
The bottom line is this: I may respect you as a person (and expect the same in return), but I will NOT respect all of your beliefs.
I may at times feel guilty about the breaks I have received (not least my gender and skin color), but I will never feel guilty or ashamed about anything I accomplished given those breaks and my natural abilities, nor about what I believe through my own research, careful thought and debate.
If that makes me a liberal elitist, and if calling me that somehow makes somebody feel better about your own life (and provides an excuse not to change it—the way you tell others to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, whatever the heck that means), that is not my problem.
So…who am I?
Hello, my name is Matt Berger, and I am proud of my degrees from Yale and Harvard and Boston University, just as I am proud of my secular liberal belief system. And I ask you to respect me as much as I respect you.
Until next time…
 “In more recent elections, the Democratic coalition has been fractured, particularly by issues associated with race,” which then underlay a series of values conflicts. “Exploiting these newer issues, Republicans had won all but one presidential election in the past quarter century, making particularly notable gains among whites, men, southerners, and Catholics.” (Italics added) Pomper, Gerald M., “The Presidential Election” in Pomper, Gerald M., Arterton, F. Christopher, Baker, Ross K., Burnham, Walter Dean, Frankovic, Kathleen A., Hershey, Marjorie Randon and Wilson Carey McWilliams. 1993. The Election of 1992. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., pg. 135.
 Hayes, Christopher L. 2012. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. First Paperback Edition. New York, NY: Broadway Paperbacks, pg. 138.
 Hayes, pg. 156