It is the great paradox within the party of the welfare state that economic populism results in a greater level of elitism in Washington. As David Brooks suggests, centralization-as opposed to devolution-does not give more power to local communities to meet the various needs of citizens. Through calls for income redistribution and progressive policies, the welfare “super-state” advocates of the past further increased the government’s role in the lives of its citizens. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents the new generation of Democrats as the party shifts further to the left and becomes increasingly open to radical change in policy. The Green New Deal is just one of the radical policies the Democratic Socialists have constructed that would aim to overhaul energy, transportation, infrastructure, and other sectors through the rise of centralized power. However, the old guard of the Democratic Party is more reluctant in their support for the Green New Deal and more open to bipartisan compromise that would avoid any radical change in policy. This divergence in visions for the party resembles many populist movements of the past, and parallels quite closely with the Tea Party movement after the election of Barack Obama. In response to the rise in right-wing populism, the Left has embraced new tactics to once again revive talks of a welfare “super-state” in order to create a more progressive America, but it is the issue of intellectual elitism that has continued to set them back in their efforts.
The recent rise in left-wing populism is in part a result of extreme positions within the Republican Party’s own populist wing. As Yascha Mounk in “Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy” explains, the two major developments that explain the rise in right-wing populism are the “decline in living standards from one generation to the next and the perceive threat to national identity posed by immigration and the growth of supranational organizations.” National identity and economic insecurity were the major developments that fueled the growth of the Tea Party movement, with its sparks being the Great Recession and the inauguration of Barack Obama. The transition of power to a Democratic president was perceived as a loss in the modern skirmish for political control of the White House as the power and size of the executive branch increases. Of course, the rise of the Tea Party movement also coincided with the Left’s Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. However, as Arlie Russell Hochschild finds out in Strangers in Their Own Land, a “deep story” differentiates the visions of right-wing populism and left-wing populism. The white working-class citizen feels a “long-simmering social conflict, one ignored by the “Occupy Wall Street” left- who were looking to the 1 and the 99 percent within the private realm as a site of class conflict”. While both the left-wing populist and right-wing populist recognize extreme income inequality, lower living standards, and a decline in mobility, it is the issue of status that greatly disturbs right-wing populists(particularly the white working-class). Diana Mutz, in her research on narratives supporting Trump’s 2016 victory, found “perceived status threat as the key motivation underlying Trump support”1. Immigration and globalization are the two major developments fueling status threat as “line-cutters” from around the world find success over the diminishing white working-class. The paranoid style of politics that Trump employed in 2016 emphasized security from perceived threats and a return of economic prosperity for industries formerly dominated by white working-class citizens, and fueled a rise in left-wing populism to protect elitism in Washington.
A party that advocates for social justice, income equality, and progressive reforms seems almost incompatible with an elite class of society. However, elitism is not necessarily an economic matter, and it is surely not an economic matter that primarily drives the white working-class voters to feel resentment towards the liberal elite. The class warfare damaging the Left’s success with many white working- class voters is not between the white working-class and the economic elite, but the white working-class and an intellectual elite. The idea of the intellectual class is not new to American politics. Seymour Martin Lipset, in “The Radical Right: A Problem for American Democracy”, found Joseph McCarthy’s speeches to be specifically targeting the eastern intellectuals who belonged to the intelligentsia as the major drivers of communist force in America. Today, right-wing populists see left-wing elitism as a tent housing eco-justice warriors, Hollywood stars, and scientists—to name a few. The Left’s, welfare “super-state” aims to apply intellectual ability in order to solve perceived moral problems in the name of egalitarianism and “justice.” Milton Friedman claims that it is the egalitarian who believes in the core liberal philosophy but will want to go further and “defend taking from some to give to others, not as a more effective means whereby the “some” can achieve an objective they want to achieve, but on grounds of justice”2. Hochschild’s experience in Louisiana showcases a subset of society resentful towards egalitarianism and the rise of modern liberalism. While the residents of Louisiana could be considered classical liberals because of their support for limited government and individual freedom, the Washington elite could be considered modern liberals because of their commitment to expanding the federal government’s role in dictating issues in healthcare and the economy. The Green New Deal, nationalized healthcare, and open borders are just a few of the proposals that represent the goals of the intellectual elite. The intellectuals are viewed as experts in their field and are thus able to allow their findings to be translated into public policy. For many right-wing populists, this seems like a gradual move towards socialism. After all, history shows that “in every country that has moved toward socialism…politics has been preceded for many years by a period during which socialist ideals governed the thinking of the more active intellectuals”3. Left-wing populism that attempts to impose sweeping changes and centralization of federal control over various industries has only given the intellectual elite even more power as activists push the Democratic party further to the left.
The divide between intellectuals and right-wing populists is one that represents the growing polarization in American politics. The intelligentsia on the far-left clashing with “radical right” is a clash that has only grown to new heights since the 2018 midterm elections as a new generation of Democrats hope to drive new forms radical change. Democracy welcomes the abundance of new ideas and difference in opinions and its often times that a movement representing a growing social cleavage can bring about much needed reform for democratic consolidation. However, as long as the Left continues to drift further away from the center, there will continue to be a clash between those who feel their status is threatened and the elites who enact policies in the name of justice. A positive feedback loop of continuing polarization will drive American politics into a more divided nation where the grasp of extreme far-right and far-left politics will strangle the practical median voter and destroy norms committed to compromise and centrism.
2 Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 195. 1962.
Blog Post in response to “How the Left Embraced Elitism” by David Brooks of the New York Times.
*Photo by Senate Democrats, “Green New Deal”, Creative Commons Zero license.