Victor Davis Hanson
Elites have always been ambiguous about the muscular classes who replace their tires, paint their homes, and cook their food. And the masses who tend to them likewise have been ambivalent about those who hire them: appreciative of the work and pay, but also either a bit envious of those with seemingly unlimited resources or turned off by perceived superciliousness arising from their status and affluence.
Yet the divide has grown far wider in the 21st century. Globalization fueled the separation in a number of ways.
One, outsourcing and offshoring eroded the rust-belt interior, while enriching the two coasts. The former lost good-paying jobs, while the latter found new markets in investment, tech, insurance, law, media, academia, entertainment, sports, and the arts making them billions rather than mere millions.
So, the problem was one of both geography and class. Half the country looked to Asia and Europe for profits and indeed cultural “diversity,” while the other half stuck with tradition, values, and custom—as they became poorer.
The elite found in the truly poor—neglecting their old union-member, blue-collar Democratic base—an outlet for their guilt, noblesse oblige, condescension at a safe distance, call it what you will. The poor if kept distant were fetishized, while the middle class was demonized for lacking the taste of the professional classes, and romance of the far distant underclass.
Second, race became increasingly divorced from class—a phenomenon largely birthed by guilty, wealthy, white elites and privileged, diverse professionals. For the white bicoastal elite, it became a mark of their progressive fides to champion woke racialism that empowered the non-white of their own affluent class, while projecting their own discomfort with and fears of the nonwhite poor onto the middle class as supposed “racists,” despite the latter’s more frequently living among, marrying within, and associating with the “other.”
The net result was more privilege for the elite and wealthy nonwhites, more neglect of the inner-city needy, and more disdain for the supposedly illiberal clingers, dregs, deplorables, chumps, and irredeemables.
The results of these contortions were surreal. The twentysomething who coded a video game that went viral globally became a master of the universe, while the brilliant carpenter or electrical contractor was seen as hopelessly trapped in a world of muscular stasis. Oprah and LeBron James were victims. So were the likes of Ibram X. Kendi, Ilhan Omar, and the Obamas, while the struggling Ohio truck driver, the sergeant on the frontline in Afghanistan, and Indiana plant worker became their oppressors. Or so the progressive bicoastal elite instructed us.
Globalization and its geography, along with the end of ecumenical class concerns, certainly widened the ancient mass-elite divide. But there was a third catalyst that explained the mutual animosity in the pre-Trump years. The masses increasingly could not see any reason for elite status other than expertise in navigating the system for lucrative compensation.
An Incompetent Elite
In short, money and education certification were no longer synonymous with any sense of competency or expertise. Just the opposite often became true. Those who thought up some of the most destructive, crackpot, and dangerous policies in American history were precisely those who were degreed and well-off and careful to ensure they were never subject to the destructive consequences of their own pernicious ideologies.
The masses of homeless in our streets were a consequence of various therapeutic bromides antithetical to the ancient, sound notions of mental hospitals. The new theories ignored the responsibilities of nuclear families to take care of their own, and the assumption that hard-drug use was not a legitimate personal-choice, but rather a catastrophe for all of society.
From universities also came critical race theory and critical legal theory, which were enshrined throughout our institutions. The bizarre idea that “good” racism was justified as a get-even-response to “bad” racism, resonated as ahistorical, illogical, and plain, old-fashioned race-based hatred.
The masses never understood why their children should attend colleges where obsessions with superficial appearances were celebrated as “diversity,” graduation ceremonies matter-of-factly were segregated by race, dorms that were racially exclusive were lauded as “theme houses,” Jim-Crow-style set-aside zones were rebranded “safe spaces,” and racial quotas were merely “affirmative action.”
Ancient notions such as that punishment deters crime were laughed at by the degreed who gave us the current big-city district attorneys. Their experiments with decriminalizing violent acts, defunding the police, and delegitimizing incarceration led to a Lord of the Flies-style anarchy in our major cities. Note well, those with advanced or professional degrees who dreamed all this up did not often live in defunded police zones, did not have homeless people on their lawns, and found ways for their children to navigate around racial quotes in elite college admissions.
So, the credentialed lost their marginal reputations for competency. Were we really to believe 50 former intelligence heads and experts who claimed Hunter Biden’s laptop was “Russian disinformation”? Even if they were not simply biased, did any of them have the competence to determine what the laptop was?
Or were we to take seriously the expertise of “17 Nobel Prize winners” who swore Biden’s “Build Back Better” debacle would not be inflationary as the country went into 9 percent plus inflation? Did we really believe our retired four-stars that Trump was a Nazi, a Mussolini, and someone to be removed from office “the sooner the better”?
Or were we to trust the 1,200 “health care professionals” who assured us that, medically speaking, while the rest of society was locked down it was injurious for the health of people of color to follow curfews and mask mandates instead of thronging en masse in street protests?
Or were we to believe Kevin Clinesmith’s FISA writ, or Andrew McCabe’s four-time assertion that he did not leak to the media, or that James Comey under oath really did not know the answers to 245 inquiries? Did Robert Mueller really not know what either the Steele dossier or Fusion GPS was?
Middle Class Competence
On the operational level, the elite proved even more suspect. Militarily, the middle classes in the armed forces proved as lethal as ever, despite being demonized as racists and white supremacists. But their generals, diplomats and politicians proved so often incompetent in translating their tactical victories in the Middle East and elsewhere into strategic success or even mere advantage.
Nationally, the failure of the elite that transcends politics is even more manifest. The country is $30 trillion in debt. No one has the courage to simply stop printing money. The border is nonexistent, downtown America is a No Man’s Land, and our air travel is a circus—and not an “expert” can be found willing or able to fix things. Is Pete Buttigieg the answer to thousands of canceled flights or backed-up ports? Is Alejandro Mayorkas to be believed when he assures the border is “closed” and “secure” as millions flood across?
The universities are turning out mediocre graduates without the skills or knowledge of a generation ago, but certainly with both greater debt and arrogance.
Our bureaucratic fixers can only regulate, stop, retard, slow-down, or destroy freeways, dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, ports, and refineries—and yet never seem to give up their own driving, enjoyment of stored water, or buying of imported goods.
Is it easier to topple than to sculpt a statue?
A generation from now, in the emperor has no clothes fashion, someone may innocently conclude that most “research” in the social sciences and humanities of our age is as unreliable as it is unreadable, or that the frequent copy-cat Hollywood remakes of old films were far worse than the originals.
Does anyone think a Jim Acosta is on par with a John Chancellor? That Mark Milley is equal to a Matthew Ridgway? Is Anthony Fauci like a Jonas Salk or an Albert Sabin?
Yet this lack of competence and taste among the elite is not shared to the same degree in a decline of middle-class standards.
Homes are built better than they were in the 1970s. Cars are better assembled than in the 1960s. The electrician, the plumber, and the roofer are as good or better than ever. The soldier stuck in the messy labyrinth of Baghdad or on patrol in the wilds of Afghanistan was every bit as brave and perhaps far more lethal than his Korean War or World War II counterpart.
How does this translate to the American people? They navigate around the detritus of the elite, avoiding big-city downtown USA.
They are skipping movies at theaters. They are passing on watching professional sports. They don’t watch the network news. They think the CDC, NIAID, and NIH are incompetent—and fear their incompetence can prove deadly.
Millions increasingly doubt their children should enroll in either a four-year college or the military, and they assume the FBI, CIA, and Justice Department are as likely to monitor Americans as they are unlikely to find and arrest those engaged in terrorism or espionage.
When the elite peddles its current civil-war or secession porn—projecting onto the middle classes their own fantasies of a red/blue violent confrontation, or their own desires to see a California or New York detached from Mississippi and Wyoming—they have no idea that America’s recent failures are their own failures.
The reason why the United States begs Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia to pump more oil is not because of lazy frackers in Texas or incompetent rig hands in North Dakota, but because of utterly incompetent diplomats, green zealots, and ideological “scientists.”
Had the views of majors and colonels in Afghanistan rather than their superiors in the Pentagon and White House prevailed, there would have been no mass flight or humiliation in Kabul.
Crime is out of control not because we have either sadistic or incompetent police forces but sinister DAs, and mostly failed, limited academics who fabricated their policies.
Current universities produce more bad books, bad teaching, bad ideas, and badly educated students, not because the janitors are on strike, the maintenance people can’t fix the toilets, or the landscapers cannot keep the shrubbery alive, but because their academics and administrators have hidden their own incompetence and lack of academic rigor and teaching expertise behind the veil of woke censoriousness.
The Naked Emperors’ Furious Search for Fig Leaves
The war between blue and red and mass versus elite is really grounded in the reality that those who feel they were the deserved winners of globalization and who are the sole enlightened on matters of social, economic, political, and military policy have no record of recent success, but a long litany of utter failure.
They have become furious that the rest of the country sees through these naked emperors. Note Merrick Garland’s sanctimonious defense of the supposed professionalism of the Justice Department and FBI hierarchies—while even as he pontificated, they were in the very process of leaking and planting sensational “nuclear secrets” narratives to an obsequious media to justify the indefensible political fishing expedition at a former president’s home and current electoral rival to Merrick Garland’s boss.
The masses increasingly view the elites’ money, their ZIP codes, their degrees and certificates, and their titles not just with indifference, but with the disdain they now have earned on their own merits.
And that pushback has made millions of our worst and stupidest quite mad.