Reverse Elitism and American Politics
In an earlier post on Sarah Palin and the Presidency, I casually mentioned that Palin is the consummate “reverse elitist” candidate. Commenters quickly jumped on that terminology and expanded upon it.
To date, I haven’t heard anybody really expound upon the notion of “reverse elitism,” or even offer a rigorous definition of it. A quick search on the Web shows a handful of references, from a Democratic Underground warning against class envy to a Linux community debate. As of now, however, I haven’t really seen this term make its way into the popular political and cultural lexicon.
But I think it should, because it explains so much about our politics.
First off, we should define what an “elitist” is. Miriam-Webster defines “elitism” as “consciousness of being or belonging to an elite.” An “elite”, according to the same source, is a “socially superior part of society.” There are other definitions offered but this one seems most inclusive. Pieced together, then, elitism means the belief that one is a member of a socially superior part of society. Remarkably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “elitism” did not appear in the English language until roughly 1950, making this a decidedly modern concept. Surely there have been elitists since the earliest days of human civilization. But we’ve only called them such since World War II.
Anyways, we tend to apply the term “elitism” or “elitist” to various sub-fields of society, including education, wealth, artistic taste, culinary preferences, athletic performance and myriad other facets of modern life. And most of us probably identify as elitists in at least one realm of life. Whether it is model railroading or weightlifting or gardening or hot-rod racing or historical scholarship, most of us consider ourselves to be elites in some form or another.
For me, it’s music. I’m a confessed music snob – especially in the field of “Americana” roots music. I have very strong opinions about what counts as “real” country music and what falls into the schlocky bucket of “top country” radio. As with most elitist pursuits, I hold a certain pantheon of “true founders” as representative of the “true art” – Hank Williams, Sr., Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Carter Family, Kitty Wells, etc. And I know what fails according to my measure of “true country” music – Taylor Swift, Dierks Bentley, Rascall Flatts and the like.
Like many music snobs I’ve even come to judge my country music as inversely proportional to commercial success. The more money the performer makes, the worse he or she must be.
But herein lies the seeds to an equally exclusive counter-motif: reverse elitism. That is, I interpret a country music artist as superior precisely because he or she “never sold out,” and never got wealthy in the process. There are some exceptions, of course – genuinely great musicians who did, in fact, get wealthy. In the rock and roll world the Rolling Stones come to mind. They were both artistically great AND financially successful and popular over the long haul.
But reverse elitism, I think, goes quite a bit further than simply inverting the financial reward system of, say popular music or the culinary arts. In fact, reverse elitism is often based in a sort of proud ignorance of what the elites hold to be superior. In other words, the reverse elitist listens to Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney in large part BECAUSE the music snobs reject them.
In the cultural world, reverse elitists are admittedly quite rare. I doubt there are many people who listen to Urban and Chesney just to stiff the No DepressIon crowd of Americana lovers. Most fans of those “hot country” artists listen to them because that is all they are exposed to on commercial country radio. When these folks are exposed to the more “rootsy” sounds of, say, Justin Townes Earle or Guy Clark they might say, “Yeah, I’ve never heard him before. He sounds pretty cool.” They’ll add the one roots-country artist to their collection. But unless they “see the light”, as we country music snobs would put it, they’ll just go back to the latest mediocre Tim McGraw release or some other suburban pretty boy with a cowboy hat and a computer-altered voice. Such is life for the country music snob…
But if reverse elitism is pretty uncommon as a cultural phenomenon, it is far more common in the political world. Since the earliest days of the American republic politicians have successfully pitted the “ordinary American” against the perceived and real elites of the day. Whether it was the British banking elite, the New England manufacturing establishment, the Southern planter class, the robber baron, the Harpers-Atlantic northeastern cultural elite, the cosmopolitan Jewish intellectual, the Ivy League and ivory tower, the mainline Protestant Council of Churches, the coastal elites, the Beltway press corps, or the country club establishment, American politicians of all ideological stripes have made successful careers out of pitting the masses against the elites of the day. There is nothing new to this, even if the forms it takes varies from generation to generation.
So is reverse elitism a good thing then? Shouldn’t the snobs be brought down to earth now and then? Isn’t it a healthy part of our democracy that we don’t reflexively kowtow to the self-proclaimed arbiters of fine culture and proper behavior?
Here is where a distinction is in order between “anti-elitism” and “reverse elitism.” I would posit anti-elitism – the rejection of self-proclaimed elitist pretensions – as a generally positive phenomenon. Taken to extreme it becomes an excuse for genuine mediocrity. But I’d suggest that the tension in every cultural endeavor between elites and anti-elites is a healthy one.
But reverse elitism is a different matter. Unlike anti-elitists who merely scoff at, mock, or defrock the elites, the reverse elitist actually posits the non-elite as “superior” to that of the elite – not, mind you, because the elites happened to have gotten this or that cultural phenomenon wrong, but because the elites are the elites. In other words, the reverse elitist turns cultural envy – jealousy even – to a rallying cry.
And here is where Sarah Palin comes in. Her odious remark on the campaign trail of 2008 where she referred to her Greensboro, North Carolina fundraiser crowd as the “pro-America part of this great nation,” perhaps best encapsulated the words of a reverse elitist. Never mind the fact that Greensboro, North Carolina has all the elements of “blue America” that Palin despises – it was, after all, the birthplace of the lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 and is home to a very progressive black and white college community. Palin was literally dividing America up into the worthy and the unworthy. It was the exact reversal of the infamous New Yorker’s view of the world where the only places that matter are the two coasts – “flyover country” lay in between as a source of cheap corn, bad hair and obesity.
Palin is hardly alone in pushing reverse elitism. The GOP has made reverse elitism a central part of its appeal in many campaigns over the last 40 years (and beyond). Some pull it off effectively. Reagan was masterful at tapping into cultural resentment politics without sounding bitter in the process, while others just stumble like fools. And it’s certainly true that Democrats are not immune to reverse elitism as well. Much of it comes across as class envy; you often hear Democratic politicos blasting Republican elites for their fancy cars and fine country clubs. It’s one thing to puncture a jes-folks Republican for hypocrisy. But it’s another when the charge is little more than hatred of wealth itself.
Reverse elitism is actually a very dangerous element in modern politics. Nearly every fascist movement in early 20th century Europe exploited reverse elitism to capture political power. It’s no surprise that Jews – that most cosmopolitan and intellectually and culturally elite people of all – would serve as the prime target for reverse elitism. One doesn’t have to be an outright Nazi to see the political value in anti-Semitism in early-to-mid 20th century Europe (or America); the Jew could easily be portrayed as foreign, exploitative, sneering, and – to the hyper-nationalist – disloyal.
That, in the end, may be why so many American Jews react so viscerally to Sarah Palin. It doesn’t matter what she says about Israel (most American Jews don’t vote based on a candidate’s position vis-a-vis Israel, unless that position is WELL outside the American mainstream). It’s that she perfectly encapsulates the reverse elitist who, just a generation or two ago, made us American Jews the target of their wrath. Perhaps it’s unfair that Palin should pay for past anti-Semitism, but the underlying anti-intellectualism at the heart of her reverse elitism is almost as offensive to American Jews as any outright anti-Semitic remark would be today.
One thing that defines the modern Blue State-Red State divide – or more accurately, the “Blue America” voter and the “Red America” voter – is the use of elitist and reverse elitist charges. I know many, many people – including family and friends – who dismiss, say, East Tennessee (where I live) as filled with inbred, fundamentalist Christian rednecks with hyperbole akin to H. L. Mencken’s scribblings on the Scopes Trial 85 years ago. There are real cultural elitists out there – including very liberal, Democratic ones. And they should be called out and taken down from their perch.
But there is also a pernicious form of reverse elitism out there that too many politicians from my part of the world trade in. There is nothing inherently superior to being from Oklahoma City or New York City, East Tennessee or Berkeley on the East Bay. And while there is nothing inherently superior to being a college professor, a business executive or Hollywood actor, there is also nothing superior to being a machine operator, warehouse worker or migrant farmer.
Perhaps worst of all, though, are members of elite classes who pretend to be non-elites so they can launch reverse elitist attacks against their favorite target of the day. The average Dana Milbank column reads this way. Most notorious was during the 2008 primary when Obama was caught giving an openly-elitist analysis of working class whites who “cling to religion or guns” out of “bitterness.” It was bad enough that Obama said it. But what infuriated me more was the faux-outrage from journalists who almost certainly say and believe the same thing in their own hearts. Standard-issue liberal columnists were aghast that Obama would say something so crass- and honest as they saw it. But it wasn’t just Cokie Roberts and the NPR crowd feigning outrage over Obama’s elitism. Given that this was a Democratic primary moment and the potential beneficiary of this gaffe was Hillary Clinton, it’s not hard to imagine many Republican media types like Neal Cavuto chuckling to themselves over Obama channeling their own thoughts vis-a-vis Rust Belt, traditionally Democratic voters. The hypocrisy of the moment ran very deep, which may be why Obama managed to survive it.
The media cynically exploits both elitism and reverse elitism on a daily basis. The lesson may be that it behooves all of us to look critically both at the media itself – and ourselves as consumers (and occasionally producers) of media – for signs of both elitism and reverse elitism. We all trade in both practices and we should be mindful of it when we do.
The meek might inherit the Earth some day. But it won’t be by self-righteously trumpeting the cultural power of our meekness.
UPDATE: Sarah Palin defends a gaffe she made by….attacking the media.