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Who You Callin’ Élitist?

by James Bowman

Posted: Oct 20, 2010 11:58 AM

It was only a matter of time, I suppose. It took a while, to be sure, but Dana Milbank is on to us. And he’s hitting back hard. The Washington Post’s witty and urbane, almost Jon-Stewart-like hammer of the right-wing, who has lately moved from page 2 to the op-ed page, the better to roll up his sleeves and get to work turning the Republican tide which threatens to swamp his party in the forthcoming elections, has found our rhetorical weakness and mercilessly exposed it. And what do you think is the killer argument he’s come up with? Tu quoque, as the élitist Romans used to say. Or, to put it in terms fit for the understanding of the base vulgar: I know you’re an élitist, but what am I?

You’ve got to admit we’ve laid ourselves wide open to it. We’ve relentlessly harped on the theme that, as Michael Gerson put it in yesterday’s Washington Post, President Obama and the Democrats are "intellectual snobs." That is, they think they are smarter than the average — which many of them, including the President, doubtless are — and that, therefore, when average people disagree with them and their ambitious big-government programs, it must be only because they are relatively stupid, or because they have allowed their fears and superstitions to get the better of their relatively feeble rational capacities. Hence Mr Obama’s words to a group of Democratic donors as quoted in Politico which Mr Gerson regarded as Exhibit A in demonstrating his snobbery.

"Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared," Obama said Saturday evening in remarks at a small Democratic fundraiser Saturday evening. "And the country's scared."

This quotation, complete with its amusingly ungrammatical and awkward phrasing, will now go up on the presidential wall of fame alongside the then-Senator Obama’s now famous description to another group of donors in 2008 of small-town voters in Pennsylvania and the Midwest as "bitter" people who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Some people call this kind of thinking "élitism" because it seems a nice turning of the tables on the left and their traditionally egalitarian obsessions. Now Mr Milbank has turned them back on us. Citing Glenn Beck’s appeal for donations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has lately also come under attack from the administration, he writes with palpable scorn:

Chamber members, he said, "are our parents. They’re our grandparents. They are us." They are? Listed as members of the chamber’s board are representatives from Pfizer, ConocoPhillips, Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase, Dow Chemical, Ken Starr’s old law and lobbying firm, and Rolls-Royce North America. Nothing says grass-roots insurgency quite like Rolls-Royce — and nothing says populist revolt quite like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In describing the big-business group as "us," Beck (annual revenue: $32 million) provided an unintended moment of clarity into the power behind the Tea Party movement. These aren't peasants with pitchforks; these are plutocrats with payrolls. There is genuine populist anger out there. But the angry have been deceived and exploited by posers who belong to the same class of "elites" and "insiders" that the Tea Party movement supposedly deplores. Americans who want to stick it to the man are instead sending money to the man.

Well, not the same class. Rolls-Royce North America and the others may be members of an economic "élite," if you care to describe it that way, but it’s not the same élite as the pack of professors, "progressive" think-tankers, TV talking heads, newspaper pundits and the rest who think, along with a lot of powerful Democratic politicians, that those who disagree with them do so only because they are too stupid to behave rationally. There are élites and there are élites, and the rich élite seems to most people this year to be more benign than the intellectual élite whose party has been in power for the past two years. Mr Milbank may not like it, but there it is. He ought to be smart enough to understand that much. Meanwhile, maybe it’s time for our side to take it easy on adopting the left’s anti-"élitist" shtick.

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