The New Elite and the Tea Party

Opinion Zone,Max Borders

Charles Murray is half-right: A New Elite has emerged. But I don’t think Murray goes far enough in unpacking that observation. Nor does he go far enough in explaining why the Tea Party so troubles that New Elite.

In the Washington Post, Murray asks:

Why are the members of the New Elite feeling so put upon? They didn't object back in 1991, when Robert Reich said we had a new class of symbolic analysts in his book "The Work of Nations." They didn't raise a fuss in 2000 when David Brooks took an anthropologist's eye to their exotic tribe and labeled them bourgeois bohemians in "Bobos in Paradise." And they were surely pleased when Richard Florida celebrated their wonderfulness in his 2002 work, "The Rise of the Creative Class."

Murray question is rhetorical. But his implied answer is unsatisfying. He alludes to the fact that the New Elite feels “put upon” by the Tea Party, which -- from a ‘bell curve’ standpoint -- has by definition to be a popular movement. But this tentative answer doesn’t go deep enough. And Murray pulls punches.

Here’s Murray’s punchline:


But the politics of the New Elite are not the main point. When it comes to the schools where they were educated, the degrees they hold, the Zip codes where they reside and the television shows they watch, I doubt if there is much to differentiate the staff of the conservative Weekly Standard from that of the liberal New Republic, or the scholars at the American Enterprise Institute from those of the Brookings Institution, or Republican senators from Democratic ones.

The bubble that encases the New Elite crosses ideological lines and includes far too many of the people who have influence, great or small, on the course of the nation. They are not defective in their patriotism or lacking a generous spirit toward their fellow citizens. They are merely isolated and ignorant. The members of the New Elite may love America, but, increasingly, they are not of it.

Hmmm, sort of.

Okay, so the New Elite clusters in a bubble of geography, education and interests? So what? Allow me to take Murray’s analysis a little deeper.

First of all, “The politics of the New Elite” is exactly the main point when it comes to answering the very question Murray poses in his piece -- that is, why the New Elite is so confounded by the Tea Party, or why the Tea Party is s’ darn mad.

1. Benighted, immoral or both? The Tea Party has specific grievances. While they may at times be poorly or vaguely articulated, Tea Partiers aren’t just mad at the fact that highly educated, smart people are educated and smart (or watch Mad Men). They’re angry that this New Elite believes -- by virtue of their education and intelligence -- they are entitled to run the show, to impose their lifestyle, or to force others to live a certain way. The New Elite -- especially on the left -- are verzaubert with what Thomas Sowell calls “The Visions of the Anointed.” They think they can simply break the rules or “interpret” them away with silver tongues in order to fashion Utopia for everyone else (or solve some crisis du jour). From municipal planning to large-scale economic intervention, the New Elite believe they know not only what’s best for us but how to implement it through state power. If you disagree? Well, you are benighted or immoral. To the New Elite, the Tea Party is both.

2. ‘But we’re trying to help you.’ The aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t like having large swaths of the Great Unwashed criticizing them for their power and influence. Less educated? Less able to articulate your position? Who are you to criticize me? The Bobos have similar feelings. But the grievances of the Tea Party cut more deeply. Why? The old aristocracies never really had any sort of moralistic account for their privilege and power. They were simply blue bloods in a “great chain of being.” But the New Elite actually believe their education and worldview make them enlightened and that their enlightenment confers certain powers to them. They are concerned with the poor and middle class! They worry about global warming! They want organic food and light rail! When so many among the poor and middle class become hostile to their positions, they get a sudden case of cognitive dissonance. After all they’re only trying to help. This is why the New Elite cannot abide all this talk of freedom from so many people at once. But to the Tea Party, this is pure condescension. As Sowell puts it: "Freedom is not simply the right of intellectuals to circulate their merchandise. It is, above all, the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their 'betters.'"

3. Mockery and mischaracterization ain’t working. Remember Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man? People say the book’s thesis had essentially been disproved by the events of 9-11. Perhaps. But not all of it. There is a crucial bit in there about “recognition,” one we should never forget:

Thymos is something like an innate human sense of justice; people believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people act as though they are worth less -- when they do not recognize their worth at its correct value -- they become angry. The intimate relationship between self-evaluation and anger can be seen in the English word synonymous with anger, "indignation". "Dignity" refers to a person's sense of self-worth; "in-dignation" arises when something happens to offend that sense of worth.

The simple way of putting this is that you can’t mock a whole lot of disgruntled people and expect to benefit from it. Whether or not you agree with the Tea Party, they think they have legitimate concerns. To mock them or mischaracterize their views serves only to make them feel more alienated--and they grow angrier. People who feel alienated and angry form the basis of almost all popular social movements and uprisings. Now that so many of the New Elite have chosen to participate in alienating others with potty humor or caricatures, they are subsequently flabbergasted when they see it ain’t working. And the movement grows. Indeed, mockery seems to have made it stronger. (I’m looking at you John Stewart and Anderson Cooper.)

4. Elite meritocracy v. market meritocracy. There are two ways to define meritocracy: One way is: being smart, working hard and getting good grades from people who worked their way to the top of a Guild because they were smart, were hard-working and got good grades (they academy). With a high degree of economic freedom, however, there’s no telling whether or not the market will reward that type of meritocracy. After all, you can be smart and work hard at creating something, but that doesn’t guarantee many will enjoy it. Market meritocracy is a very different animal, therefore. People get rewards by creating value for other people--measured by that gauchest of gauges: profit. Of course, because most people are not elite, the market tends to reward the tastes, biases and preferences of ordinary people. The New Elite often can’t stand that fact, as they tend to consume products and services on The Long Tail. (I admit, it bothers me too, sometimes. I wish more people listened to Arvo Pärt than Lady Gaga.) But market meritocracy resists elitism, even as it creates fabulously wealthy people. And that makes smart people in “the Guild” get antsy (and sometimes envious)--especially when the Tea Partiers seem to be celebrating the form of meritocracy that doesn’t benefit members of The Guild (at least not directly).

5. Tit for Tat. Few can deny that much of the New Elite got wrapped up in “hope and change.” These bromides were vague terms to which people ascribed either their own ideas for reform and/or their political sentiments--as Steven Pinker points out here. But when the Tea Party began to expose the vacuity of these bromides, the New Elite felt mocked--as if their ascriptions were being trampled upon and their sentiments derided. This is similar to 3. above, but with at least one major difference: The New Elites are being derided by those they consider to be their inferiors. And that smarts. What’s worse is the Tea Party represents a sudden shift in power away from all that “hope and change” represented for them. And that smarts even more. What America got -- and is still getting, therefore -- is a war of words between the New Elite and the Tea Party. Who knows where it will end.

It appears as if I’ve shifted away from Murray’s claim that the New Elite cuts across party lines. As one who considers himself something of a hybrid (e.g. I have Tea Party sympathies and some New Elite sensibilities), I have to point out the obvious: New Elitism is dominated by the left. Apart from a few beltway libertarians and a few so-called “crunchy-cons,” both of which consider themselves to be too good for populism, the New Elite is composed mostly of people for whom the State is Church. And that phenomenon, folks, is something I can’t explain. (Though many have tried (and tried)).

Max Borders is a writer living in Austin among the “New Elite.” He blogs at Ideas Matter.

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