by Victor Davis Hanson
The news of this week made mention of Al Gore as our soon-to-be, first carbon billionaire. Accounts included both his earlier and contemporary angry denials that he was greedy, or had used his vast network of government contacts to influence public loans, contracts, and regulations, in parlaying a 2001 net worth of $2 million apparently into a green empire of several hundred million.
In Gore’s telling, he was worried only about the planet, put meager investments into promising green companies, and then, given divine intervention, found himself worth perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.
Still, I’m not so interested in how Gore made his fortune, or even the ethics involved of barnstorming the planet in a first wave of scare tactics, then following up with a second wave of financial reaping from what his fear mongering had sown — but rather instead the divide between the world he advocates and the life he lives. After all, with cap-and-trade, our energy is going to go a tad higher — the rich oblivious to the cost, the poor to be recipients of government subsidized help.
To distill Gorism is to live in a 1,000 sq. ft. solar house, bike to work, and take the train on long distances; but to promote Gorism, one lives in a mansion, jets on private planes, and is chauffeured from airport to conference center — a rather heavy carbon footprint indeed. I mention that because this week he has insisted that he only invested in what he believes in and is thus not a hypocrite — sort of like a 1990s Fannie or Freddie director saying he is only taking mega-bonuses because he believes in public support for housing.
A Charming Disconnect
What has the liberal leadership become? It garners more Wall Street money than the Republicans. The high-income brackets favored Obama. The shriller the populist or nihilist — think everyone from Arianna Huffington to Michael Moore to Noam Chomsky to Gore Vidal — the nicer the home. Think of the vast diversity of such celebrity hypocrisy: John Edward’s “two nations” is defined by his own vast estate — and those outside it. Michael Moore profits in the millions from, of course, damning profit-driven capitalism.
A Sean Penn or Oliver Stone praises the egalitarianism of Latin American thugs whose socialist utopias would jail both in short order if they ever moved in pursuance of their egalitarian rhetoric. The Obama populist team hires Wall Street insiders to bail out friends, whose firms they will shortly join when out of office.
Rev. Wright is back in the news. In Animal Farm, pigs-on-two-legs fashion, he is sermonizing on the joys of socialism as he is ensconced in a three-story, 10,000 sq. ft. mansion, paid for by his relatively modest flock in thanks to his virulent race-baiting (the real story of his Fox-news-aired clips was not his racism or anti-Americanism, but the standing ovations he received from his congregation for his unadulterated hate.). A Nancy Pelosi shouts slogans from the barricades, while her husband subsidizes her aristocratic liberalism through a network of arcane deal-making. Chris Dodd worries about the roguery of credit card companies while he finagles an Irish getaway “cottage” through influence peddling. The list could go on.
More Than Hypocrisy
But everyone is a hypocrite, you object? Again, the mystery is not liberal hypocrisy — as I have written, after all, pompadour-haired, leisure-suited evangelical preachers are regularly caught in flagrante delicto or up-from-the-bootstraps corporate farmers garner vast federal agriculture subsidies — but rather the apparent unconcern that revolutionary populism and the desire for great wealth and the elitism it bestows don’t mix.
What are we to make of the George Soroses and Warren Buffetts and the club of the mega wealthy preferring the populist rhetoric of Barack Obama? Why did a “redistributive change”, “spread the wealth” Barack Obama move into a million-dollar mansion, or a “truth to power” Valerie Jarrett make out like a bandit from questionable insider Chicago real estate deals, or Rahm Emanuel cash grab as a director of a scandal-plagued Freddie Mac, or raise-our-taxes Timothy Geithner in the most tawdry fashion avoid taxes? In short, why the liberal fascination with money and privilege — and populism?
Pick an Exegesis
Choice One: There must be some syndrome at work of psychological compensation. For many who seek out the high life, but who are cognizant that the big house, the good vacations, the good schools, the nice night life and socializing, are beyond the reach of most, some sort of genuine guilt ensues. One way of squaring that circle is to go hard left in the abstract as a form of psychological penance that costs little in the concrete — the bloodthirsty medieval knight stopping in at the abbey to confess before the gore of battle.
The more Sean Penn praises Castro, the more the perks of Malibu become to his mind OK. Boat around New Orleans after Katrina and you can cruise around the Pacific Coast Highway with a good conscience. Being rich and left-wing is like a 16th-century sinner buying an indulgence through purchasing a few blocks for the dome at St. Peter’s. Moneyed liberalism allows one to feel good at very little personal expense — surely not having one’s child bussed to an inner-city school, or giving up your legacy slot at Princeton for someone more diverse, or waiting at the LA emergency room with a sick child.
Choice Two: With money also comes a sort of refinement by the very fact thathoi polloi are usually kept at a distance — the Kennedys discussing healthcare from their beach compound, John Kerry from one of his numerous homes lambasting greed, Governor Corzine, awash in $400 million of Goldman-Sachs bonus money, deploring rightist obstructionism to his anti-poverty plans. In other words, the rich like their alliances with the distant objects of their affection, as long as the many remain suitably distant.
There are never consequences for crazy theoretical positions; money and status ensure insulation from high crime, welfare dependency, or the pernicious culture of the underclass. And to write as I do here is to be envious, impractical, irrelevant, blind, etc. to equally bad rich conservatives (who at least admit to being champions of the capitalism that enriched them and to want others to do as well as they have.).
The key I think here is an ill-at-ease feeling, not with the poor, or even with the middle class, but with the upper-middle class, or anyone in general that strives to be rich. This is the image of the town-hall money-grubbers, without kids in prep schools, without proper degrees, the ancient polypragmones of Aristophanes’ comedies who hustle to make a drachma through tanning, pottery, and shipping. Joe the Plumber or Sarah Palin is like Petronius’s freedmen who stoop to bite and pick up sesterces in the dung, and are soiled by the efforts at acquisition.
Obamamism’s targets are wannabees, who lack the proper sophistication that real wealth ensures. Again, note the hatred of Sarah Palin and her followers: how dare this upstart sell her memoirs, this winking, you-betcha tart whom we’d never let in a Georgetown party. For many, liberalism, in contrast, is the proper social accoutrement for big money, a tasteful indulgence like driving a XK-150 Jaguar rather than an Escalade, cruising in a Gar wood boat, or having hardwood, machine-worn hickory floors in the kitchen instead of linoleum. Yes, snobbery is part of high liberalism. It is a fashion marker that says: “I want high taxes, because for me they are as superfluous as white lace and crystal.”
Choice Three: There is some real big money in leftwing capitalism. Look at Gore again, and his outrage when asked about the propriety of it all (his argument boils down to: ‘How dare you to insinuate that me, Al Gore, savior of your planet, would ever be interested in making a hundred million off it!), or Charles Rangel’s furor at questions about his corruption, or the Kennedy shock that anyone would ask how the former bootlegging fortune out-trusted ninety years of inheritance laws to reach distant offspring intact.
We don’t associate hardball, tawdry shenanigans with the creation of the Buffett, or Turner or Gates fortune. Even modest fortunes like that of democratister Terry McAuliffe do not receive careful scrutiny when we understand their creators are “with the people” and for whom money-making was always incidental, a brief pause between public service.
Franklin Rains essentially looted what he could get from Freddie Mac, but as a man of the people such despicable compensation was, well, a mere distraction from populism. In other words, liberalism is smart business practice in the world of big money, an enhancement of right-wing capitalist me-first money-making. The wealthier the Wall Street wheeler-dealer, the more likely, in Robert Rubin fashion, one was to embrace Clinton and Obama. Hundred-million-dollar liberalism not only legitimizes and shields great wealth, but says, “Oh, by the way, for a few years I dabbled as one of those lucre-chasing capitalists and found what they do quite easy, actually.”
A couple of final thoughts. We are a long way from Harry Truman’s fair deal Democratic party, like it or not. The theme seems to be that high taxes hardly hamper liberal elites but are necessary to fund the entitlements for the poor and lower middle classes, who in turn promise political support for those for whom money has become of less interest. Not all of this is new: think of the noblesse oblige of FDR or JFK. But rarely has the quest for the good life so permeated the ranks of liberal elites and been so juxtaposed to the rhetoric of fairness and egalitarianism.
Government — the Mother’s Milk of the Poor and Wealthy
The push-back to all this is not Republican, but a populist distrust of elites and the cozy government they craft. Americans by and large not only resent higher taxes, but feel that the additional revenue makes things worse not better, by either politicizing public service or corrupting the nature of the recipient. The rich liberal has others go to the DMV for him. The lower middle class gets a job at the DMV. But the middle class waits in line for hours for service from the SEIU clerk behind the window, who can’t be fired as a loyal constituent of big government. Sorry about the stereotyping of hard-working public employees (who more than anyone deplore the corruption of their workplace), but you get the picture.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson