America’s dirty little secret has always been its class system. We’re not supposed to have one, of course. We’re the land of Abe Lincoln, Will Rogers and “all men are created equal.” We proudly proclaim that anyone can rise to the top in this best of all possible societies.
But it hasn’t always played out that way. Just put an alumnus of Choate and Yale in the same room with a migrant farm worker and you’ll notice the difference in half a jiffy.
The rich and poor will always be with us; that’s the mark of a free society, for better or worse. We try to assure equal opportunity but can’t guarantee equal results. If everyone were equally successful, after all, who’d be picking the arugula for all those yuppie dining room tables?
I was thinking just this morning (and it’s reassuring to know that I can still think) that a good education in the liberal arts exerts a strange and unsettling influence on young minds. On the one hand, it elevates the tastes and reading habits of those impressionable individuals to an exalted and rarefied level that some of us would call highbrow or elitist. I should know, because it happened to me. (I’d call myself an omnibrow these days.)
On the other hand, that same elitist liberal education seems to bond most of its adherents together in a kind of ideological unanimity, a predilection for political progressivism that amounts almost to a secular religion. (That didn’t happen to me; I was among those wayward souls who never saw the light.)
Combine elite tastes with progressive politics, and the typical end-product is a family that professes to love minorities but sends its kids to expensive private schools. This is the American demographic that rails against the oppression of women while denouncing opponents of sharia law as Islamophobes. It seems paradoxical, of course, but somehow it all fits together.
The educated elite is united by its disdain for unsophisticated, hee-hawing, Middle American Christians. If we dug a little more deeply into their motives, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the educated elite embrace progressive politics at least partly to distinguish themselves from the unwashed NASCAR-loving Republican rabble. Voting Democrat, like listening to NPR, has become an upscale social identifier for these self-consciously enlightened status-seekers. Progressivism is now a badge of nobility.
Meanwhile, leave it to those crazy Republicans to emerge as the vanguard of grassroots populism in this upside-down republic. Formerly the party of bankers and country-clubbers, the G.O.P. now harbors a radical right-wing fringe that threatens to consume it from within. For the first time in modern memory, we’re looking at the prospect of raw, visceral, buck-naked democracy overtaking the U.S.
This isn’t the prettified representative democracy we learned about in our high school civics lessons. We’re looking at mad-as-hell, slash-and-burn activists who want their country back and won’t take no for an answer.
What does The New Moderate think of the New Populism? If you’d have asked me two years ago, as Wall Street imploded and its malignant follies nearly wrecked the entire world economy (not to mention my own retirement portfolio), I’d have sided with the populists. I’d have told you that we needed to protect America’s beleaguered middle class… that, in fact, we needed to unmask and take down its plutocratic elite, once and for all. I felt angry and betrayed, and I hated those who had rigged the system to suck wealth into their lives at the perpetual expense of the middle class.
My animosity toward the American plutocracy hasn’t entirely cooled, but I’m a little less eager now to consider myself a populist. Yes, I’m still a sucker for the romanticized populism of Frank Capra and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I still believe we need to return our government to genuine representatives of the people. But the people themselves?
The Tea Party movement and its hyperkinetic evangelists have given me pause. I appreciate their passion and their democratic (small D) antipathy toward entrenched elites in Washington, Wall Street and university towns. But I’m still a little put off by their fevered demands for a vague, elusive Reaganite America that suits their prejudices and pocketbooks. I’ve had to conclude that I’m not one of them.
Last week, during my peregrinations around the TV universe, I stumbled upon Jersey Shore and decided to watch it for the first time. It appalled me (and I grew up in New Jersey). The skanky lowlife antics of Snooki and Co. succeeded handsomely in reviving my inner elitist.
How could someone who loves Beethoven not be driven to insanity by watching these latter-day Neanderthals cavort on the public screen? (And I’m probably insulting Neanderthals.) How can we stand to see them propelled to fame (if not fortune) by their lack of class? They made the Kardashian sisters look like royalty.
I shook my head and thought, “Behold the People!” Is this where our great experiment in democracy is culminating… with a celebration of our meanest and most retrograde specimens? Jefferson would be turning in his grave, if his mouldering bones could still turn.
Elitism vs. populism. Not a happy choice. But then, the extremes rarely are. More than ever, I’m proud to be a moderate.