My blood pressure rises when I hear conservatives like vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin slam liberals for being "elitists." Not just because of what they're saying, but also because a lot of my fellow progressives give the right wing ammunition to make the "elitist" charge sound all too true.
First things first: It is ridiculous for money-bag Republicans like John "Millionaire with 7 Houses and 13 Cars" McCain to call Barack Obama, whose mother was once on food stamps, a member of "the elite." But it's no surprise. For years, Republicans have argued that they -- the party of giant corporations, high finance and a shredded social safety net -- are the true friends of ordinary, middle-class, "Joe Six-Pack" Americans. Over time, that strategy convinced election-winning numbers of ordinary Americans that the fat cat party is "like us," even though these same folks would be thrown out on their rears if they dared enter their Republican congressman's country club.
How does the GOP get away with labeling liberals as the true elitists? The Republicans' enormous reserves of political cynicism and sheer gall have something to do with it, but the painful truth is that a sizeable minority of liberals are elitists who do look down their noses at ordinary Americans. And as my FDR-Democrat, working-class grandfather would have said, "That's a goddamn pitiful shame."
Used to be, the ground floor of American liberalism -- its very reason for being -- was a deep concern for everyday citizens who too often find themselves at the mercy of injustice from the powers that be. Think of the national parks system, women's right to vote, food and drug regulations, workers' right to collective bargaining, the New Deal that tempered capitalism's excesses through social programs, the '60s civil rights struggles -- all liberal causes, won when progressives stood with, and stood for, other ordinary Americans. Since then, however, liberalism has split and morphed into a variety of groups and, sadly, it's not very hard today to find the kind of liberals the Palins of the world talk about -- out of touch, snooty, and borderline hostile, if not downright contemptuous, of ordinary Americans.
Listen to the more intent conversations at gatherings attended by progressives, or take a quick stroll through left-wing blogs, and you'll inevitably hear or see condemnations of "low-IQ" rural voters, the "idiots" of suburbia, the "moronic small-town mentality," or the "ignoramuses" who think, for example, that public money paid out for giant metallic bagels for the South Boulevard light rail line's public art perhaps would have been better spent on our failing public schools. Progressives who hold such opinions have been termed "cultural liberals," or, as conservatives call them, "latte liberals," many of whose primary concerns are politically-correct behavior and buying the right products -- a Prius is morally superior to a Kia, right? -- rather than fighting for the well-being of all. I've actually heard a group of people argue about whether nonvegetarians could be opposed enough to the war in Iraq; unfortunately, although I was appalled, I wasn't all that shocked.
These kinds of views aren't just the refuge of shallow trend-suckers who confuse their personal lives with real political action. They're a betrayal of America's great liberal, egalitarian traditions, not to mention that they enable conservatives to paint all progressives with the same broad brush.
Most liberals don't deserve the "elitist" label, by any means. Many of them help organize campaigns, canvass neighborhoods, organize benefits, register voters, and perform wonderful work helping people, out of sight of the media's eye. In fact, there's a strong trend lately among liberal activists toward recovering the populist roots of progressivism, and it's about time.
Growing up, like tens of millions of Americans in the postwar period, I saw my family's economic trajectory move from lower middle, working class to somewhere just short of upper middle class. We benefited from an expanding economy and progressive policies; from the unions whose efforts gradually raised wages and benefits for everyone, not just their members; from the reality of a decent social safety net and increased vacation time; and from having enough leisure time to expand our horizons. These gains were the result of years of liberal activism, and they benefited the mill worker as well as the doctor.
Somewhere along the way, too many progressives lost the connection to what the American left in the 1930s called "the Real People." For those "lost liberals," by the '80s, the language one used and the consumer choices one made became confused with political action, and eventually devolved into today's too-common liberal self-parodies. (Actually overheard not long ago: "I heard that Birkenstock is going to start making wine.") Meanwhile, corporations' interests devoured our government, which proceeded to betray the nation's workers -- while too many progressives were busy picking out that perfect, correct Third World jewelry, and making fun of the rubes who weren't hip to such sensitive issues.
Again, most progressives don't fall into the "latte liberal" category, thank God. But there are still too many for this particular progressive's comfort, and we see the results every time a Palin or a Limbaugh uses the "elitist" label and makes it stick.