By BARBARA EHRENREICH
The New York Times
July 1, 2004
You can call Michael Moore all kinds of things — loudmouthed, obnoxious and self-promoting, for example. The anorexic
Sure, he's made a ton of money from his best sellers and award-winning documentaries. But no one can miss the fact that he's a genuine son of the U.S. working class — of a Flint autoworker, in fact — because it's built right into his "branding," along with flannel shirts and baseball caps.
My point is not to defend Moore, who — with a platoon of bodyguards and a legal team starring Mario Cuomo — hardly needs any muscle from me. I just think it's time to retire the "liberal elite" label, which, for the past 25 years, has been deployed to denounce anyone to the left of Colin Powell. Thus, last winter, the ultra-elite right-wing Club for Growth dismissed followers of
The notion of a sinister, pseudocompassionate liberal elite has been rebutted, most recently in Thomas Frank's brilliant new book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?," which says the aim is "to cast the Democrats as the party of a wealthy, pampered, arrogant elite that lives as far as it can from real Americans, and to represent Republicanism as the faith of the hard-working common people of the heartland, an expression of their unpretentious, all-American ways, just like country music and Nascar."
Like the notion of social class itself, the idea of a liberal elite originated on the left, among early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites who noted, correctly, that the Soviet Union was spawning a "new class" of power-mad bureaucrats. The Trotskyites brought this theory along with them when they mutated into neocons in the 60's, and it was perhaps their most precious contribution to the emerging American right. Backed up by the concept of a "liberal elite," right-wingers could crony around with their corporate patrons in luxuriously appointed think tanks and boardrooms — all the while purporting to represent the average overworked Joe.
Beyond that, the idea of a liberal elite nourishes the right's perpetual delusion that it is a tiny band of patriots bravely battling an evil power structure. Note how richly the E-word embellishes the screeds of Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and their co-ideologues, as in books subtitled "Rescuing American from the Media Elite," "How Elites from Hollywood, Politics and the U.N. Are Subverting America," and so on. Republican right-wingers may control the White House, both houses of Congress and a good chunk of the Supreme Court, but they still enjoy portraying themselves as Davids up against a cosmopolitan-swilling, corgi-owning Goliath.
Yes, there are some genuinely rich folks on the left — Barbra Streisand, Arianna Huffington, George Soros — and for all I know, some of them are secret consumers of French chardonnays and loathers of televised wrestling. But the left I encounter on my treks across the nation is heavy on hotel housekeepers, community college students, laid-off steelworkers and underpaid schoolteachers. Even many liberal celebrities — like Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem — hail from decidedly modest circumstances. David Cobb, the Green Party's presidential candidate, is another proud product of poverty.
It's true that there are plenty of working-class people — though far from a majority — who will vote for Bush and the white-tie crowd that he has affectionately referred to as his "base." But it would be redundant to speak of a "conservative elite" when the ranks of our corporate rulers are packed tight with the kind of Republicans who routinely avoid the humiliating discomforts of first class for travel by private jet.
So liberals can take comfort from the fact that our most visible spokesman is, despite his considerable girth, an invulnerable target for the customary assault weapon of the right. I meant to comment on his movie, too, but the lines at my local theater are still prohibitively long.
Barbara Ehrenreich will be a guest columnist for the Op-Ed page through July. Thomas L. Friedman is on book leave for three months.