by Victor Davis Hanson
Progressives go the full Jimmy Swaggart.
Some concerned Democrats are worried that their party may have lost the key blue-wall states because of its elitism, manifested as disdain for Americans between the coasts.
Perhaps emblematic of their worry is the strange metamorphosis of Hillary Clinton’s two presidential campaigns. In 2008, as Bill Clinton 2.0, she drank boilermakers, bragged about bowling and shooting, boasted about her resonance with the “white” working class, and clobbered Obama on his Pennsylvania clingers speech.
But after Obama’s win — and his assumed new formula of registering record numbers of minority voters and seeing them often vote in a bloc on the basis of racial solidarity — Clinton thought she too could follow this new pathway to Democratic victories. So she made the understandable political contortions
This time around, Clinton was bent on out-Obaming Obama’s “clingers” with her own “deplorables” and “irredeemables.” Her campaign was based on pandering to identity-politics groups — while she had cashed in on Wall Street in what can be fairly called a payola scheme with Bill to enrich the Clinton Foundation and thus indirectly themselves. The result was both a cultural and economic affront to what used to be the bedrock of the Democratic party.
Americans neither hate nor envy meritocratic elites. Here in one of the poorer areas of the nation in rural southwestern Fresno County, the poor admire the skilled surgeons who operate on their children. Most of the new agri-barons are up-by-their-bootstraps ethnics: Basques, Punjabis, and descendants of the Okie diaspora and the 1960s waves of immigrants from Mexico who may now farm more than 2,000 or 3,000 acres of orchards and vineyards and on paper be worth $10 or $15 million, though they dress in old clothes and drive run-down pickups. They are looked upon as success stories worthy of emulation because most talk and act like the people who work for and with them.
So perhaps what drives proverbially average Americans crazy is not the success and money of others, but the condescension and hypocrisy of what a particular elite says contrasted with how it lives: The disconnect recalls the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, the televangelist who on Sunday mornings three decades ago used to break into tears as he loudly condemned the sins of the flesh, while he privately indulged his worldly appetites.
Elites, whose lifestyles lead them to burn lots of carbon, rail about the Paris accords to those who live by burning a lot less. What is galling is to see how little the elites’ green rhetoric is backed up by their green behavior. Could Hollywood celebrities at least for a year swear off the use of their private jets that emit more carbon emissions in a year than entire small towns in Ohio?
Why do not college professors who are strident activists for climate change agree to limit their intercontinental jet trips to one a year? Could our pundits and politicians who warn Middle America to brace for radical changes in their lifestyles at least agree to live in houses smaller than 2,500 square feet?
How do our elites square the circle of identity politics and big money? The notion that reparatory admissions and hiring are based on race and gender presupposes that past endemic bias has led to oppression that in turn had hit hard the livelihoods of the Other. But what happens when after a half-century of affirmative action, many who receive preferences are richer than those whom they accuse of white privilege?
Or is it more ironic than that? Wealthy white college kids chant about the demon white privilege, going so far as to help demand racially segregated safe spaces, dorms, and, in one case currently in the news, temporary expulsion of white people from campus. They rage against a privilege that they enjoy and that their perceived targets — the unenlightened middle of America — do not. Yet one easy way of ending white privilege, to the extent that it exists, among elite enclaves would be to send one’s children to public high schools rich in diversity.
One wonders how many hecklers and disrupters at Middlebury College, to take one example, chose prep school when there were better opportunities to mingle with minorities at inner-city schools? And if they really wished to address culpable whites, shouldn’t the college sponsor field trips to rural Pennsylvania or southern Ohio where such chanting demonstrators might more directly address the targets of their ire?
If one believes that charter schools and vouchers weaken the public-school system, then an effective way to counter such challenges would be to put one’s own children in public classrooms rather than to deny the poor the ability to disconnect from the public schools for the same reasons that so many elites have. One of the most surreal paradoxes of Washington, D.C., is the number of progressives (including the former president of the United States) who put their children in Sidwell-Friends while passionately opposing charter schools and vouchers.
The list of progressive paradoxes is limitless: handgun possession by the law-abiding is a supposed catalyst for violence, but not for security details who surround Hollywood and political celebrities. Elites lecture Americans on their supposed – isms and -ologies (sexism, racism, nativism), but when such sins are endemic to Middle Eastern societies abroad or indeed among immigrant communities inside the West, they are paternalistically excused or ignored.
Common themes in rap music are misogyny, racism and calls for violence against police — the sort of career-ending lyrics for most other entertainers.
The media are overwhelmingly progressive and critical of America for its supposed backward and unprogressive values. Yet reactionary ideas are most evident on the coastal corridors and on supposedly tolerant and liberal campuses. Who thought the liberal civil rights of the 1960s would end in the neo-segregationist movements of the 2010s, most recently at Evergreen College, where all whites were asked to leave the campus for a day while minority students shut down the campus?
Yet visit liberal Silicon Valley or Hollywood boardrooms, and a self-described and purported meritocracy rules, which so far has resulted in few minorities in those corridors of influence and power.
All these hypocrisies raise the question among fly-over Americans about the entire politically correct progressive agenda of elites: Has it become reduced to a cynical sort of indemnity insurance that elites take out to lubricate their own privilege? (Will Bill Maher survive his use of the N-word, given his loud liberalism?) Al Gore got rich by creating a veritable global-warming-alarmist industry, only to offload his largely failed cable channel (in a fire sale timed to help him beat anticipated higher capital-gains taxes) to the gas- and oil-exporting autocracy of Qatar. He got away without criticism because he was Al Gore, liberal environmental-justice warrior.
John Kerry has spent a political career prompting higher taxes — only in 2010 to attempt to berth his $7 million yacht in Rhode Island rather than his home Massachusetts to avoid high sales and excise taxes. He thought he could square that circle because he was John Kerry, fierce supporter of higher redistributive taxes to expand social services.
California is the locus classicus of sanctimonious elite hypocrisies: Interior farmers must give up their contracted irrigation water to save the Delta smelt, while San Francisco environmentalists insist that their own water supplies flow from the distant Sierra uninterrupted over the San Joaquin River into the reservoirs of the Bay Area.
Stanford students lecture about erasing things named after Junipero Serra, who purportedly exploited and maltreated native Californians while founding the mission system. But Leland Stanford, the founder of the university, as governor of the state, often lectured on the inferiority of nonwhite populations, while Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan (co-founder of the racist “Human Betterment Foundation”), was an unapologetic eugenicist who feared the effects of miscegenation. It is quite easy to airbrush Father Serra from a few streets, but campus social-justice warriors apparently value their Stanford brand name on their diplomas too much to Trotskyize away their own investment. Left unstated is that liberal students cannot be parties to racism so, presto, Stanford is exempt from rebranding.
Obama, who lectured the country that wealthy people did not build their own businesses, that everyone should realize when they had made enough money, and that it was not the time for profiting, now earns $400,000 from Wall Street interests for short speeches on his past successes — on the heels of raking in a reported $60 million for a his-and-hers book deal. How does the tire saleswoman in Grand Rapids or the welder in Tennessee square that? Americans have no problem with Obama’s post-presidential lucrative entrepreneurialism, but they do mind that he is never subject to the ramifications of his own loud redistributionist ideology.
In sum, the progressive Left’s problem is not elitism per se, at least in the sense that it’s now the party of wealthy people, investors, professionals, academics, the media, and celebrities. Rather the rub is the Left’s grating habit of lecturing America on its shortcomings while exempting themselves.
Finally, why do progressive elites act so patently hypocritical when they must sense it is destroying the Democratic party?
Other than the Dirty Harry answer “because they like it,” the answers are complex.
In part, they virtue-signal their own distance from the shunned middle classes, who are assumed to lack both the romance of the distant poor and the tastes and culture of the proximate rich.
Lectures without personal consequences allow the enjoyment of privilege without personal guilt. Without Barack Obama’s boilerplate on diversity and social justice, the public would see that he now lives a far more privileged life than does a Mitt Romney.
In career terms, the more memos you write deploring the lack of diversity, the less likely you or your old-boy white staff will be scrutinized by diversity czars. Hold up a simulacrum of Donald Trump’s severed head, dream to a crowd of blowing up the White House, flip the finger to Trump’s picture while flashing the V-sign to Snoop Dogg, the ex-felon and pimp, and there is little careerist downside. Mutatis mutandis, do that in the context of Obama, and your career would be over.
Big-city coastal culture is also closer to a postmodern hip Europe than to the premodern uncool interior a few miles away. There is a sense of globalized entitlement of a particular class that has prospered as a domestic market of 300 million turned into a world market of 6 billion. Our new plutocrats believes that because they became capitalist demi-gods, they also deserved commensurate cultural and spiritual exceptionalism.
An elite’s lectures on melting ice caps, transgendered restrooms, or Black Lives Matter are progressive versions of an unapologetic sinner’s singing hymns in church on Sunday; the harangues bring them closer to their social-justice deities and apparently give personal meaning to their otherwise quite non-transcendent lives.
In all their own manifest hypocrisies, Americans take for granted that elites of the Left have become the Jimmy Swaggarts of our age.