What do we mean when we say "elites"?

Jamelle Bouie has a critique of my Vox essay  out in Slate. I think Bouie is operating in good faith and makes several good points, even if I think his case is ultimately misguided. I responded to it a bit on Twitter, but I wanted to provide a more organized response to his argument for reference.

Bouie appears to have two major objections: (1) He argues that my essay elides the role that racial animus played in the break between the white working class and the liberal coalition. (2) He believes I’ve mistaken a relatively small, elite cohort within liberalism—essentially, the educated, the coastal, the professional, the media—for the whole of liberalism.

Race and Realignment

On the first point, Bouie is correct. Racial animus that had threatened to destroy the liberal coalition as far back as the early twentieth century was a major driver of the realignment that culminated between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t something I deny in my own piece. In fact, I’d go further and say that the racial tantrum which drove realignment wasn’t limited to the working class. Among the most critical errors in the history of the American labor movement, the racially motivated defection of union leadership to Nixon in 1968 surely ranks near the top. Subsequently exploited and encouraged by the GOP, racism has continued to animate reactionary populism, from Reagan’s “young buck”, through the reaction to the Barack Obama presidency, and now in the Trump movement.

That I didn’t explicitly address this my piece is a fair critique by Bouie, but I don’t believe it fundamentally undermines my point. The fact that the white working class embraced and continues to embrace racial resentment does not actually constitute a good reason to deny them economic justice. It isn’t a reason to insist that they’re idiots or hicks. The possibility that these people can be persuaded to abandon racist attitudes is only frustrated by the fact that they have very few other things to hold on to. At any rate, it isn't dispossessed workers who perpetuate systems of racial inequality. Elites do. No matter what bigoted attitudes they possess, the working class lacks the power to shape society.

Moreover, Bouie goes too far by treating racial animus as the sole driver of realignment. In conversation, he told me that he didn’t think the causes of white working class defection were “that complicated”, and specifically claimed that race will get you “90% of the way there”. Even if we limit ourselves to issues where liberals were right and the reactionary working class was wrong, the 10% of explanation Bouie admits might not be racial must somehow include feminism, the sexual revolution, popular culture, and the anti-war movement, to say nothing of real economic decline. That’s a lot to squeeze into a mere tenth of our causes.

Still: I ought to have devoted a section of my piece to addressing the causes of realignment, rather that beginning with the fact of working class defection and focusing on the ways in which liberals have helped perpetuate it.  That said, I don’t think liberal smugness—“These rubes are just ignorant backward hicks who deserve their fate”—is taking a nuanced view of history either.


Do Elites Matter? 

The second of Bouie’s arguments—that elite liberals in media, on twitter, etc. don’t really matter as much as I think—is a lot less defensible.

First: Bouie cites viewership numbers for The Daily Show and other metrics of elite liberal cultural reach to argue that not many people actually consume smug content. He writes:

Maybe this represents an important liberal constituency—an integral part of the Democratic Party. Or maybe it’s a minor and unrepresentative group of affluent people, likely clustered in a few major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. You can say the same for liberal users on Twitter (just a small minority of people use Twitter to talk about politics) and Gawker readers and perhaps even people who write for websites like Vox and Slate.

This is bafflingly beside the point. It reminds me more than anything of Jon Stewart’s perennial insistence that he was “just a comedian”. Sure. But people, (and vitally, people with power) do learn their politics from you.

The elite are, by definition, a rather small slice of the population, and arguing that their absolute size means that they are not particularly important seems to ignore their capacity to drive the national political conversation. Bouie attempts to address this, conceding that smugness “influences” the conversation but doesn’t “constitute” it. (In fact, he says this of The Daily Show specifically. Throughout his piece, Bouie pushes back against the total effect of smug by arguing against the capacity of any given part of it to wield great power.)  He writes: “Rensin has mistaken this segment of national political dialogue for something that actually drives political activity”

But on this point he appears basically mistaken. The opinions, preferences, priorities and culture of elites do, in fact, have a massive outsize influence on policy. The fact that they merely “influence” but do not literally constitute the whole of “the conversation” elides the fact that they influence it quite a bit. Surely Bouie believes that elite media has some influence—otherwise, why expend so much energy writing in it? That this influence has resulted in the further abandonment of the working class is plain to anybody who has watched the past thirty years of Democratic Party priorities.

Are the majority of Americans watching The Daily Show and reading Twitter and taking their cues accordingly? No. But the people who make their policy and write their media do, and they decide which issues get attention, and which don’t.

Bouie might argue that the choices are not “total” influence or “no” influence. I agree. But I believe elite circles have enough influence that they may be held accountable for the role they play in American policy. For Bouie’s argument to make sense—for him to maintain that it’s a mistake to devote time to a long critique of elite liberal attitudes toward the working class because those attitudes doesn’t have much power—you must believe the opposite. You must, at least, think that whatever influence it does have is vanishingly small.

The truth is I do not believe that Bouie actually thinks the attitudes and influence of cloistered elites are too narrow to matter much. It is liberal consensus that the way in which minorities and women are shut out of and variously disrespected by elite culture has had a materially harmful effect on them. No doubt Bouie agrees, and so do I: when elites don't take you seriously, even in their private culture, it hurts you. It makes it harder to wield power. It makes your issues take a back seat to whatever elites do deem important. If they’re actively insulting you too, it’s even worse: they are giving their permission for others to do the same. Media attitudes and elite influence matter.

But not, evidently, in the case of the working class. You could argue that reactionary working class whites deserve to be shut out and scorned in a way that others do not. But that is not the same thing as saying that being shut out and disrespected doesn’t have much effect.

A Sick Burn

Finally, Bouie ends his piece with a burn somebody was bound to attempt. He writes:

This is blinkered. And the result is an essay that doesn’t criticize “liberalism” so much as it positions Rensin against other members of his cultural cohort. It’s what you might write if you’ve mistaken the consumption habits and shibboleths of your tribe for a politics that drives one of two major political parties in a democracy of over 300 million people, if you’re convinced of your own centrality to the currents in American history. I can think of a word for that.

In other words: But aren’t you being smug?

My essay defines “the smug style” very precisely. It does not mean “having an opinion” or “arguing forcefully” or even “believing your politics are right”. The smug style is about how a large segment of elite liberal culture has come to believe that political differences and political arguments are errors, in the strict sense. That they are ultimately reducible to differences in knowledge (and therefore differences in intelligence). It has accordingly developed an entire culture of tribal signals and jokes predicated on reinforcing this dogma.

The consequence is that elite liberal concerns have been blinded to a whole host of economic issues. It has made liberals worse at combatting reactionary forces. If you believe the main problem is that your opponents are dumb hicks, you do not understand them well enough to fight them, much less persuade them. For example: The smug style made it impossible for liberals to take Trump seriously until very late in the game. It has made a large part of their response to him counter-productive. Even if Trump is defeated, this pattern will continue.

So no. Inasmuch as I do not believe the problem with my political opponents is that they’re just ignorant and not very bright, I am not actually the one being smug. I believe my political opponents—be they reactionaries or meritocratic liberals—are on the other side of a moral battle, one that can’t be won by way of ridicule.

As it happens, the actual meaning of the smug style and what it has done to liberalism (which is to say the actual thrust of my argument) gets no mention by Bouie. That’s fine. He doesn’t have to engage with it. Why bother, if elite culture doesn’t really amount to much to begin with? If the rubes started it and asked for it and continue to be vile about it? Well, maybe they did. So what?