“Elitism? Moi?”

Part of a Series




A key talking point in recent political history has been the right-wing attack on what its members term “elitists,” those evil people, almost always liberal, urban, well-educated or in the entertainment business, who are always telling honest, God-fearing, NASCAR-lovin’ Americans how to behave. The “Liberalism equals Elitism” equation appears to fit almost any occasion. In a book he authored, but which was ghosted by David Brooks, Rush Limbaugh posited his own success as an example of what he terms “middle America’s growing rejection of the elites.” He defines said elites as “professionals” and “experts,” including “the medical elites, the sociological elites, the education elites, the legal elites, the science elites … and the ideas this bunch promotes through the media.”

Bernard Goldberg, who has spent a career working within what conservatives would call the “liberal media elite,” has sworn off all association with liberals “even when he agrees with them,” he says, “because of their elitism. They look down their snobby noses at ordinary Americans who eat at Red Lobster or because they like to bowl or they go to church on a regular basis or because they fly the flag on the Fourth of July.”

Radio talk show host and former cable conservative blonde babe, Laura Ingraham, has authored an entire book on this topic, entitled, Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN are Subverting America, in which Laura, who attended an Ivy League university, lives in Washington, D.c=, where she drops in on gay dance clubs, and occasionally treats herself to a ride on Robert DeNiro’s private plane, distinguishes between liberal elitists and what she terms “True Americans.” The latter, it seems, “believe in God, own guns, and want limited government,” and “want to place God in public schools and in public life. (p. 13) … Generally speaking these admirable folks tend to be white, southern, Christian, and Republican,” (p. 32, 63) as opposed to liberal elites who “would like to ‘murder’ America and make the world safe for terrorism” (p. 74), while living “in palaces invisible from the road outside, and fly[ing] in private jets, while their managers and assistants tell them only what they want to hear" (p. 17).

John Podhoretz, a former speechwriter for Bush the Elder, who grew up on the Upper West Side, the son of prominent liberals-turned-neoconservatives, and attended Ivy League schools before finding jobs working for Sun Myung Moon, Rupert Murdoch and George H.W. Bush, sees the world through similarly rose-hued glasses as those of Ingraham. “Bush Red is a simpler place,” he explains, after watching people at play in Las Vegas; it’s a land “where people mourn the death of NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, root lustily for their teams, go to church, and find comfort in old-fashioned verities.”

Among his many accomplishments, George W. Bush has helped to throw this attack into turmoil, however, perhaps by taking it a little too seriously. When, on October 3, Bush nominated his spectacularly underqualified personal lawyer and secretary, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court, the walls of yet one more right-wing talking point came crashing down.

Almost immediately, the right’s intellectual class rose up in righteous indignation. The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol got the ball rolling on the day of the nomination, complaining that he was “disappointed, depressed and demoralized” by the president’s choice. He was quickly followed by many of his fellow travelers on the right, shocking both the White House and legions of rabid red state bloggers who have been trained by these same conservative intellectuals to revile bookish, Ivy League-educated, East Coast journalists and pundits. It was only now that the Republican base realized that their intellectual class wasn’t “regular folks” like them. Rather, they were themselves a New York- and Washington-based elite. (A few of ‘em even work in Hollywood.)

And what fun it’s been to watch. The pages of the Weekly Standard and the National Review have grown openly contemptuous of the conservative base, who seem to want to trust that the president knows what he’s doing in choosing Miers, and who want to destroy their own pundits in the process.

Former Bush speechwriter and hagiographer David Frum has led the attack, writing in the National Review that the decades the conservative movement has spent training legal talent for the next Republican Supreme Court nomination have effectively been wasted on the president’s pick, and that legions of bright young conservatives who had attended top law schools and taken positions as professors and judges will have been for naught if Miers is confirmed. “To take a hazard on anything other than a known quantity of the highest intellectual and personal excellence” is “simply reckless,” Frum has written. Even the noted far-right grandee Robert Bork, himself denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987, has said that Bush’s pick is a “slap in the face to the conservatives who’ve been building a conservative legal movement for 20 years.”

And due to this demand for simple competence, a schism has erupted in the conservative ranks. "For all we know, she will be so conservative that she’ll make Clarence Thomas look like Kanye West,” wrote red-state lover John Podhoretz. “It’s still an unserious nomination, which is what those of us who are objecting to it are objecting to."

One of the more entertaining battles has been waged between blogger Hugh Hewitt (pro-Miers) and the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg (anti-Miers), who have taken to comparing resumes to prove that they would recognize a member of the hated “elite” if it snuck up and bit one of them on the behind. As Goldberg wrote of Hewitt on NRO’s “The Corner”: “Ah yes, those Harvard alum, Coif-ordered, presidential library-building, appeals court clerking, Justice Department working, three-time-Emmy-award-winning, NEH-counselling, PBS-hosting men of the people really have us National Review aristocrats dead to rights.” Hewitt’s bizarre rejoinder: Goldberg “suggests that I too am an elitist, never realizing that an Ohio-born and raised Cleveland Indians and Browns fan cannot be an elitist. Further, my argument has been with the Bos-Wash Axis of Elitism, and not an argument about snobbery.”

But Goldberg was just getting going. Increasingly annoyed by the alleged “holier-than-thou ‘real Americans,’ ‘real conservatives’ and outside-the-beltway free thinkers” that have been e-mailing him to accuse him of elitism, he offers his humble story: “I was rejected from every college I applied to. Well, almost.” Almost, to be sure. Goldberg, like many of the alleged liberal elites he has scolded throughout the years, grew up not far from Podhoretz on the Upper West Side, the son of a Manhattan literary agent, attended an expensive private college, got a job on a PBS show, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, an author who served as the senior policy advisor and chief speechwriter to Attorney General John Ashcroft. Not a lot of “heartland” cred there, I’m afraid.

As Noam Scheiber recently pointed out in the New Republic, what is most important in this debate isn’t necessarily ideology, but instead sociology. “Frum was reflecting a basic sociological truism – that conservative elites are frequently as credentialist, even snobbish, as the liberal elites they scorn. Many conservative pundits and wonks attended top schools, read highbrow publications, and belong to exclusive professional societies. They firmly believe that elite credentials signify merit.”

What these conservative critics are running up against for the first time is the machine that they themselves created, a kind of echo chamber of blind trust in the president, and a hatred of all things intellectual or intellectually challenging. It isn’t enough that Bush know Miers’ “heart,” but that she have some – any – actual experience with constitutional law. But their appeal to reason over faith – now there’s a switch – is defined by the very people they’ve been flattering as part of the problem. As that great Canadian intellectual Alanis Morisette might say, “Isn’t it ironic….”

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.




The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series