Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Right-Wing Elitism is Even Uglier than Liberal Elitism

Yes, too many Democratic politicians are Ivy-educated lawyers. But right-wing populism is a sham led by real estate developers and venture capitalists. Nothing could be more elitist than the Republican antagonism toward democracy.

“You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” Ludwig von Mises, letter to Ayn Rand, 1958 

In response to a new Quinnipiac poll showing that Joe Biden has abysmal approval ratings among Hispanic voters (26%), Fox News contributor Ben Domenech argues that “Hispanics are Republicans now” because “Democrats are a party run by Ivy League idiots with Ivy League values.” He was repeating an argument heard frequently on the right, which is that the Democratic party represents rich, out-of-touch, “coastal elites” who went to fancy schools. The Republican Party, on the other hand, is for salt-of-the-earth “real American” truck-driving rural types. So-called “right-wing populism” seeks to use this framing to foment a revolt against Cosmopolitan Liberal Elites or Globalists.

But only half of the story is correct: it’s true that at the top of the Democratic Party, one finds a lot of rich lawyers, many with Ivy League educations. What we shouldn’t conclude, however, is that this makes the Republican Party the party of the “salt of the earth.” If the Democratic Party is the party of “trial lawyers” and Hollywood, the Republican Party is the party of real estate developers, landlords, car salesmen, restaurant owners, ranchers, life insurance executives, and megachurch pastors. Donald Trump himself is an Ivy League educated real estate mogul, and in office this “populist” stood up for the interests of his fellow bosses, giving them a giant tax cut, undercutting worker rights, and opposing anything that could cut into corporate profits—like universal healthcare, which would hurt the private insurance industry, and climate action, which would hurt the fossil fuel industry. 

In fact, the ranks of the American right are full of people who went to elite colleges. Domenech’s portrayal of an Ivy-ridden Democratic Party overlooks the Ivy League pedigrees not just of Trump, but also of prominent U.S. conservatives like Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Dan Crenshaw, Dinesh D’Souza, Kris Kobach, Ron DeSantis, Clarence Thomas, and George W. Bush. Domenech’s wife Meghan McCain is a Columbia graduate, and Domenech himself, in addition to being the son of a former Interior Secretary, went to William & Mary, one of the original “public Ivies.” In fact, Trump’s “populist” administration was crammed with Ivy League graduates (e.g., Jared Kushner, Mike Pompeo, Steve Mnuchin, Mark Esper, William Barr, Wilbur Ross, Alexander Acosta, Elaine Chao, Alex Azar, Ben Carson). If and when fascism does finally come to America, it will almost certainly come with an impeccable Ivy League pedigree. 

Whenever you hear a right-winger grumbling about the Elite Universities, it’s worth checking where they went to school themselves. Venture capitalist and Trump-endorsed Ohio senate candidate J.D. Vance, for instance, echoes Richard Nixon and thunders that “the professors are the enemy.” But it was only thanks to the mentorship of his Yale law professor, Amy Chua, that Vance wrote his career-making, bestselling memoir How I Made It To Yale Even Though My Family Are Drug-Addicted Violent Wastrels Who Should Pull Themselves Up By Their Bootstraps (published in the U.S. as Hillbilly Elegy). Right-wing populism usually consists of men who were born to immense privilege and went to elite schools (Trump, Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley) railing against people who are, in fact, many times less powerful and influential than they are (e.g., immigrants). When you point out to their faces that they are part of the very “ruling class” that they rail against, they get extremely touchy about it

In getting past the “Democrats represent elites, Republicans represent truckers” view that Republicans are constantly trying to push, it’s instructive to look at the backgrounds of sitting Republican senators. Out of the 50, nearly half are former lawyers (20) or doctors (4). The rest include: a former real estate developer/insurance executive, a private equity firm partner, a Wall Street Banker, a financial adviser, a marketing consultant, a Procter and Gamble executive, several consultants, several ranchers, multiple other businessmen of various kinds, and the program director for the country’s largest Christian youth camp. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama has one of the most unique backgrounds, having served as Auburn University’s football coach, but this is a position so exalted that he received $5 million when he quit, before launching a (disastrously run) hedge fund. A few are simply “career politicians” who floated through various local and state offices before winding up in Congress. Though I didn’t examine them all exhaustively, the closest I could find to someone who previously did “working class jobs” was Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who worked as a sheet metal shearer and assembly line worker. That was in the 1950s, and the now 88-year-old Grassley has been in public office since 1959. 

Of course, the Democratic Party senators are a bunch of lawyers and career politicians, too. Probably a slightly higher percentage of them went to Ivy League schools. But it should be clear why Noam Chomsky says that in the U.S. “there is basically one party—the business party, [with] two factions, called Democrats and Republicans.” The Republican Party just speaks for a different wing of American “elites,” with fewer college professors and more developers.

Patrick Wyman, in an essential essay on how America’s “local gentry” is an overlooked source of political power in this country, explains that in order to understand the class structure of the country, we can’t just look at billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Hollywood celebrities, New York Times op-ed writers, and Harvard lawyers (who all lean Democratic). We have to examine the less-visible members of the propertied class, the Small Business Owners:

“When we talk about inequality, we skew our perspective by looking at the most visible manifestations: penthouses in New York, mansions in Beverly Hills, the excesses of hedge fund billionaires or a misbehaving celebrity. But that’s not who most of the United States’ wealthy elite really are. They own $2 million houses on golf courses outside Orlando and a condo in the Bahamas, not an architecturally designed oceanfront villa in Miami. It’s not that those billionaires and excesses don’t exist; it’s that they’re not nearly as common as a less exalted kind of wealth that’s no less structurally formative to our economy and society. There are an enormous number of organizations and institutions dedicated to advancing the interests of this gentry class: Chambers of Commerce, exclusive country clubs and housing developments, the American Society of Concrete Contractors, and fruit-growers’ associations, just to name a small cross-section. Through these organizations and their intimate ties to local and state politics, the gentry class can and usually does wield significant power to shape society to their liking. It’s easy to focus on the massive political spending of a Sheldon Adelson or Michael Bloomberg; it’s harder, but no less important, to imagine what kind of deals about water rights or local zoning ordinances are being struck across the country on the eighth green of the local country club. … Power resides in group photos of half-soused overweight men in ill-fitting polo shirts, in gated communities and local philanthropic boards. You’ll rarely, if ever, see these things on CNN or in the New York Times, but they’re no less essential to understanding how and why our society works the way it does.”

Indeed, the congressman for my hometown of Sarasota, Florida, is drawn from precisely these ranks—he owns a string of local auto dealerships, several reinsurance companies, and a charter jet business. Since the country’s founding, these are the types of people who have held public office, and this was by design. As Founding Father John Jay put it, “those who own the country ought to govern it.” Working-class people have had very little say in how the country is run, no matter which party was in charge. 

It’s crucial to understand this, because 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. This narrative persuades plenty of people who should know better. The implication is that the right better embodies the aspirations of working people.

This idea is a fraud. In fact, the right believes in rigid social and economic hierarchies, and sees inequality as natural and even desirable. Vanity Fair recently had a report on the “New Right,” profiling J.D. Vance and Arizona senate candidate Blake Masters (like Vance, a Trump-aligned venture capitalist and lawyer, though not an Ivy Leaguer—he went to Stanford). Masters and Vance are both influenced by the “neoreactionary” thinking of a man named Curtis Yarvin, an outright self-described monarchist who believes in abolishing democracy entirely and putting a single strongman in charge of the country. Vance, in the profile, is quoted saying things that sound worryingly close to an endorsement of abolishing the rule of law and establishing a dictatorship. Peter Thiel, a mentor to both Masters and Vance, has said openly that he doesn’t think “freedom” and “democracy” are compatible and worries about the “totalitarian” rule of the “unthinking demos.” This was a worry shared by the Founding Fathers, who disenfranchised the majority of the country (women, Black people, Native Americans) to ensure that it was subject to the prudent stewardship of propertied white men, rather than the “tyranny of the majority.”

Of course, Peter Thiel and James Madison have been right to fear democracy. It has always been the case that genuine popular democracy does pose a threat to those who own the country, because the people who do not own the country (and instead must sell their labor to the owners) might decide they do not like the deal they are presently getting, and choose to use state power to restructure that deal. As even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges, if Peter Thiel and the other few hundred billionaires were expropriated, we could lift tens of millions of people out of poverty. Since doing this would make sense on any elementary moral theory of the social good, billionaires like Thiel must strive to make sure that the public has no chance to implement commonsense redistributive policies that would reduce his pile of wealth. 

The right condemns “liberal elitism.” Indeed, I don’t care for it myself. And while it’s true that people with low incomes tend to skew Democrat  (same with women and people of color), Democratic governance tends to come from Silicon Valley and the Ivy League, which hardly makes for authentic representation. (See Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal for a deep critique.) But the right 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. Donald Trump is now stumping for a candidate who appears to believe quite openly in dictatorship, and 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 problem with many Republican charges against the Democrats (out of touch, useless, snobby) is that they have a great deal of truth to them. But the Republican agenda is absolutely terrifying and authoritarian, and we must push harder than ever for a genuine alternative to the present leadership of both parties. The solution, as always, is a genuine democracy where the government is composed of a cross-section of the population, not a narrow group of venture capitalists and lawyers whose idea of speaking for “the people” is to demagogue about trans people. Coming up with true democracy is going to be a fiendishly difficult task that will take a very long time, but the first step we must take is to be able to think clearly and make sure that “right-wing populism” continues to be exposed as a ludicrous form of fraud, beneath which lies a clear belief that the rich ought to continue to rule. 

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