The E-Word

One of the most revealing passages in the late Paul Wellstone's political memoir, The Conscience of a Liberal, is his criticism of the decision that he made during his first year in the Senate to hold a press conference on his opposition to the Gulf War within sight of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "I wanted to dramatize the dangers of military action," he wrote. "Instead, I deeply hurt many Vietnam veterans -- really, all of the veterans' community."

What makes Wellstone's self-criticism so interesting a decade after the Gulf War is his refusal to excuse his decision. He does not justify his actions by arguing that he was right about the war, and he does not minimize what he did by saying that it was a lapse in etiquette. Wellstone understood that for Democratic liberals like himself to act in a way that showed indifference to others (in this case, an indifference that allowed him to use a war memorial as a media prop and ignore the sacrifice it symbolized) was serious. It left them vulnerable to the accusation that they were elitists who stood for an ideologically driven politics in which the feelings and values of ordinary people were unimportant.

Today, Wellstone's concerns about the dangers of elitism are, if anything, more relevant than they were when the first George Bush was president. In a period in which an estimated 3.3 million white-collar jobs are slated to move overseas by 2015 and at least 31 percent of the Republican tax cuts will go to the richest 1 percent of the country, Democrats still face difficulty in making political headway on these issues. Often they find themselves spending their time responding to the charge that they constitute a liberal elite out of touch with mainstream America.

What has made this elitism charge so formidable -- and in many ways as effective as the "soft on communism" label that hurt Democrats during the Cold War years -- is the opening it has created for opponents to make the kinds of lifestyle and personal-choice issues that work against Democrats an increasingly important part of our national political debate.

Fifty-four percent of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the economy, but Democratic liberals find that they cannot campaign by just talking about job loss and health care. Voters also want to hear from them on when they go to church and how they view marriage and what their definition of patriotism is. As a frustrated Howard Dean observed last November during a visit to Tallahassee, Florida, "We have got to stop having our elections in the South based on race, guns, God, and gays and start having them based on jobs and health insurance and a foreign policy that's consistent with American values."

For a party that has thrived on making fairness and equality its goals since the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, this shift in the national sensibility has been a terrible setback. In the old days, it was the corporate and military establishment that C. Wright Mills wrote about in his 1956 classic, The Power Elite, who were viewed as ruling the country and against whom Democratic liberals could run. These days, for a large number of voters, the establishment looks altogether different. In their eyes, the new power elite consists of those whom David Brooks, in his 2000 best-seller, Bobos in Paradise, defined as a highly educated bourgeois bohemian ruling class (Bobos) who blend 1960s rebellion with 1980s achievement.

Framing this shift in political and cultural perception is the growing identification of groups that can be won over to a candidate on the basis of appeals to their lifestyle or personal choices. "NASCAR dads," a term coined by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake to describe the estimated 75 million fans of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, are a case in point. Blue-collar workers with jobs that average between $35,000 and $65,000 a year, NASCAR dads should be loyal Democratic voters on the basis of their economic self-interest, but they have proved staunch Republican supporters, giving President Bush a 61-percent approval rating.

A similar pro-Republican, anti-liberal Democratic bias exists among churchgoers. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that those who frequently attend religious services favor Bush by a 63-to-37 margin, while those who never attend religious services lean toward Democrats by a 62-to-38 margin. As Thomas Mann, a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington noted, these days religion is "the most powerful predictor" of "partisan voting intention." What has been especially damaging to Democratic liberals in recent years is not, however, simply the identification of groups within the country who are prepared to let their cultural and personal beliefs, rather than their economic self-interest, determine their voting. It has been the ability of radio and television commentators, intensely hostile to liberalism, to make sure the most conservative of these beliefs get widespread circulation. The best-known talk-show hosts doing this -- Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Pat Robertson -- enjoy a high level of celebrity, and their views have gained wide attention through a series of books (some of which they have written) that continue the war against liberal elitism.

The books -- particularly such recent ones as Ann Coulter's Slander, Bernard Goldberg's Arrogance, Laura Ingraham's Shut Up and Sing, and Michael Savage's The Enemy Within -- come with snappy titles, a picture of the author on the cover, and the argument, made over and over, that the contempt of the elites, especially the liberal elites, for ordinary Americans is infinite. As Ingraham wrote, "They think we're stupid. They think our patriotism is stupid. The think our churchgoing is stupid. They think our flag-flying is stupid."

What these books -- by authors who nowhere else in their public lives are concerned with those on the bottom rung of society -- do from start to finish is push the argument that the influence of the liberal elites is everywhere in our culture. All one needs to do is to look at the subtitles: Liberal Lies About the American Right; Rescuing America from the Media Elite; How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America; Saving America from the Liberal Assault on our Schools, Faith, and Military.

The books by the writers on the left who have sought, largely unaided by the bulk sales that catapult the right-wing books onto the best-seller lists, to counter this conservative assault -- Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? , Joe Conason's Big Lies, Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and Michael Moore's Stupid White Men -- have slowed it only partially. That is hardly surprising. The assault on liberal elites that we see now has been a long time developing. Rather than catching voters by surprise, it has a familiar ring to it.

The roots of the assault were described in 1969 by Kevin Phillips in his breakthrough study, The Emerging Republican Majority, which he dedicated to President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell. Phillips argued that the combined votes for Nixon and George Wallace, along with the Democrats' liberal stand on civil rights, the welfare state, and the flag, provided the basis for a political and cultural realignment that would make Democrats the minority party for the foreseeable future.

Nixon exploited this situation by characterizing his supporters as a "silent majority" bullied by the liberal anti-war left, and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, went still further, describing the liberal journalists and intellectuals who opposed the Nixon administration as "an effete corps of impudent snobs." Nixon's overwhelming defeat of George McGovern in 1972 validated the effectiveness of this strategy, and in the 1980s the Republican attack on liberal elites was continued by Ronald Reagan, through his alliance with the religious right and the Moral Majority, and by George Bush Senior, who portrayed his 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as someone so out of touch with America that he could be mocked for representing the liberal views of the "Harvard boutique." Dan Quayle, Bush's vice president, later observed that, by the 1990s, there were "two Americas," "the cultural elite and the rest of us."

It's tempting to dismiss these criticisms as divisive pandering and simply ignore them. But it would be a mistake to think that the elitism charge has stuck simply because the Democrats have been victimized by their conservative opponents and a changing society. Since the 1960s, Democratic liberals have also put themselves in a position to be seen as elitists. On the great wedge issues of the last 40 years -- Vietnam, school busing, law and order -- Democratic liberals, acting on the basis of deeply held convictions, have backed policies for which the highest costs have not been born by an educated middle class living in suburbs and safe city neighborhoods but by poor and working-class families, who have had to take whatever came their way.

While the Vietnam War protests were going on, it was mostly the sons of the wealthy and the middle class, not those of the poor and working class, who escaped the draft by staying in college or hiring lawyers to argue that they were entitled to a medical deferment. During the school-busing crisis of the 1970s, it was poor black and white students, not suburban and private-school students, who experienced the disruptions that occurred when their overcrowded schools were rocked by racial turmoil. And when law and order were enforced less strictly ("defining deviancy down," Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan would call it), those for whom unsafe streets were daily realities, not those in well-run communities, were the people who felt the consequences.

This is not to say that Democratic liberals were wrong in opposing the war in Vietnam, working to desegregate the public schools, or, in the case of the law-and-order issue, trying to curb the excesses of police departments. But it is to say that Democratic liberals never collectively dealt with how the privileged lives they led generally immunized them from the sacrifice and disruption that followed when their political principles were put into action.

In 1975, six months after the fall of Saigon, the editor and writer James Fallows published a searing essay in The Atlantic Monthly, "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" in which he told the story of how he and most of his Harvard classmates schemed to avoid the draft, believing that in doing so they were clogging the great American war machine. But what they had really done, Fallows concluded, was very different. They had opposed going to Vietnam in "a bloodless, theoretical fashion" and guaranteed that "our class of people would be spared the real cost of the war." Fallows' essay is the model for the kind of public acknowledgment of past history that Democratic liberals today need to make if they are ever to put the charge of elitism fully behind them.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton cracked open the door for such an acknowledgement of the past. He steered clear of the social policies that, by the end of the 1970s, had cost Democrats so many of their traditional supporters, and he defused the argument that liberal elites were indifferent to the working class. Clinton got his party out from under the burden of the welfare issue, and in language that harkened back to Franklin Roosevelt's concern for the "forgotten man," Clinton made the central figure of his 1992 campaign "those who do the work, pay the taxes, raise the kids, and play by the rules."

Today's Democrats have been very hesitant to extend Clinton's legacy on elitism, save in murmurs. With a few notable exceptions, they have concentrated on dealing with the elitism charge rhetorically, denying that they are elitists while refusing to explore in detail the most serious components of the charge. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh took this route last October when he told the press, "The Democratic Party can't afford to be perceived as cultural elitists. If we appear to be hostile to people of faith or people who own guns, they will believe the Democrats don't understand people like us." Since that time, the Democratic presidential candidates' public disavowals of elitism have been continuous, from Joe Lieberman's insistence that "money and influence must not drown out the voice and the values of ordinary Americans" to John Edwards' declaration, "I do believe that it's important for us as a party not to look down on anybody, not to stereotype those in different parts of the country. We can't be a party of elitism."

This language, even when coupled with talk of the nation being divided into two Americas, will not be enough. Given the importance that issues of morality and values have come to have in our elections, Democrats need to go further. They cannot succeed in 2004 if they pin all their hopes on the solutions they offer to such key economic problems as the nearly 3.2 million jobs that have been lost since George W. Bush became president or the rising number of Americans (around 44 million by current estimates) without health insurance. If they want to become a majority party in the post-September 11 world, Democrats are going to have to develop a more far-reaching politics -- specifically, a politics of security that addresses the full spectrum of well-earned fears that the country has about terrorism, about unemployment, about access to a doctor, about living in a time of increasing uncertainty.

The good news is that if they are able to convince voters that they can act on such a linkage, that they grasp its psychological, social, and economic dimensions, it will not matter how many best-sellers the right wing produces. The elitism charge will simply be written off as name-calling. Democrats will be making the kinds of connections that Bush never has, and they will be acquiring wedge issues of their own that they can use against an administration whose repeated favors for corporate donors and the very richest Americans make it supremely vulnerable to arguments built around fairness and vision. On national-security matters, there is the Bush administration's rhetoric about the war on terrorism but its refusal to ask Americans (save those in the armed services) to sacrifice as Americans traditionally have when threatened by war. On the domestic front, there is the administration's talk about prosperity but its acceptance of the Marie Antoinette thinking of Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who, in defense of high-tech job outsourcing, declared earlier this year, "There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore."

Political ammunition does not get much better than this.