Republicans love to pin the “liberal elitist” tail on the Democratic donkey.
Murray State University historian Brian Clardy pleads guilty, with a caveat.
The liberal Democrat admits he’s an elitist if that means “that we try to read; that we try to stay on top of political, cultural, financial, historical and societal trends; that we try to stay informed; and that we are accepting of other cultures and people who work, act, pray and worship differently from us.”
Tagging Democrats as “elitist” is part of the GOP strategy to make voters believe they’re the working class party, journalist Nathan J. Robinson says.
“Republicans try to use the ‘culture war’ to convince members of the public that Democrats are the Elite who rule us, that the country is owned and run by Liberals,” he wrote in a 2022 Current Affairs article that’s still timely. “This narrative persuades plenty of people who should know better. The implication is that the right better embodies the aspirations of working people.”
The notion is bogus, the author added. “In fact, the right believes in rigid social and economic hierarchies, and sees inequality as natural and even desirable.”
Robinson doesn't like “liberal elitism,” arguing that “Democratic governance tends to come from Silicon Valley and the Ivy League, which hardly makes for authentic [poor and working class] representation.”
Nonetheless, the president who did the most for what the Good Book calls “the least among us” was a rich Ivy Leaguer named Franklin D. Roosevelt. He famously said that if he got a factory job, the first thing he’d do was join a union.
My working class maternal grandparents — both union members — enthusiastically voted for FDR all four times he ran and won. They doubtless would have understood the sentiment of a North Carolina mill worker who said, “Mr. Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son-of-a-bitch.”
But I’m with Robinson if by “liberal elitists” he means well-heeled, well-educated folks who may be solid on social issues like LGBTQ rights but aren’t so hot for organized labor. Message to these so-called “limousine liberals”: Support for LGBTQ rights and union rights is by no means mutually exclusive.
Pride at Work is an official AFL-CIO constituency group “that organizes mutual support between the organized Labor Movement and the LGBTQ Community to further social and economic justice” and seeks “full equality for LGBTQ Workers in our workplaces and unions.” One of my oldest union buddies — a straight, married middle-aged white guy — says he drinks Bud Light “just to piss off” the bigots.
Anyway, according to Robinson, it’s the elitist right that “believes in a vastly more terrifying kind of hierarchy. It is from the right that you will hear open statements that democracy is a bad thing. The right is full of Social Darwinist justifications for the wealthy having their wealth, and uses downright Hitlerian arguments to rationalize social inequalities. … Trump himself has made it clear that he will not accept the outcome of any election he does not win. We cannot allow Republicans to get away with pushing the absurd narrative that they stand for The People, when what they quite clearly stand for is the dictatorship of private capital.”
The “liberal Democratic elitism” charge seems to work best in largely white, conservative, evangelical rural America, which includes most of Kentucky. Tennessee, too, says Clardy, who grew up in small-town South Fulton, which shares the state line with Fulton, Ky.
“Anger is roiling in Republican America along with conspiratorial fabrications about who to blame for their condition,” Mike Males wrote in Yes! Magazine last year. Clardy doesn’t see the ire and paranoia subsiding.
Fueling the anger is Republican race-baiting, once the political currency of white supremacist southern Democrats. Donald Trump ran the most overtly racist presidential campaigns since George Wallace in 1968. Trump, evidently a shoo-in for the GOP nomination again, is still playing the race card.
“The right-wing canard that hardworking White people subsidize welfare-grubbing cities is backward,” argued Males, a native of Antlers, Okla.
He backstopped his claim with hard numbers: “Democrat-voting counties, with 60% of America’s population, generate 67% of the nation’s personal income, 70% of the nation’s GDP, 71% of federal taxes, 73% of charitable contributions, and 75% of state and local taxes.
“Mirroring Antlers, White Republican America also suffers violent death rates, including from suicide, homicide, firearms, and drunken driving crashes, far higher than Whites in Democratic America and higher than non-White people everywhere. To top it off, Republican-governed Americans are substantially more likely to die from COVID-19. As the death gap between Republican and Democratic areas widens over time, the life expectancy for Whites in Republican-voting areas (77.6 years) is now three years shorter than that of Whites in Democratic areas (80.6 years), shorter than those of Asians and Latino people everywhere, and only a few months longer than Black and Native Americans in Democratic areas.”
Males went on to warn, “Despite the superficial resemblance of the crumbling neighborhoods, junk-filled lots, and widespread poverty of Antlers and conditions in a devastated city of color like Camden, New Jersey, the origins of their devastations are very different. Camden is the product of systemic racism and industrial abandonment inflicted on poor, primarily non-White residents powerless to prevent their exploitation. Antlers is the predictable endgame of White majorities who had better options instead empowering incompetent, corrupt demagogues (segregationist Democrats in the past; nihilist Republicans today) who flatter White claims to racial and religious privilege while awarding largesse to rapacious outsiders.”
In The Independent, Larry Womack, who grew up in a small California town, similarly wrote that “when ... rural Americans aren’t coming up with ways to make their own problems worse, they’re looking for out-groups to blame. Like the minorities who live in those thriving urban centers, and have an increasingly equitable share of power in Washington, DC. Rural voters are far more likely to believe that black and Latinx people are abusing government assistance programs, for example. The racist resentment is vast, and a growing body of research has found that support for Trump is fueled almost entirely by hatred of out-groups: In 2016, the strongest predictors of Trump support were bigotry and lack of education.”
"All of this is coded in political language, of course – which is why simply being female, or a person of color, is enough for voters to view a candidate as more left-of-center than their actual policy positions. To far too many, the word 'liberal' has become a slur for anyone who doesn’t look like them.”
But you’ve got to hand it to the Republicans, whose guiding principle is enriching the already rich. The GOP has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the old Robber Barons in convincing less well-heeled white folks that the Democrats are the “elitist” party.
“Never before have so few with so much promised to take away so much from so many and then laugh their asses off as the so many with so little vote for the so few with so much," observed Jim Pence of Glendale, Ky., who ran the Hillbilly Report blog.
President Lyndon B. Johson, a Texan who championed landmark federal civil rights bills in the 1960s, observed, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Concluded Males: “Poverty in cities and on reservations requires mainly the sustained political will to work with populations who welcome the effort. In stark contrast, fixing rural White poverty against the angry, anti-democratic recalcitrance of most Whites themselves requires an entirely new political thinking we have yet to imagine.”
Written by Berry Craig, who has lived all of his 73 years in rural, small-town western Kentucky.