In 2003 and 2004, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie graduated from indie darlings to mainstream successes. I was still in high school, muddling through my last four years in suburban Connecticut and relying on both bands to help me do so, but while they were my bands in a very visceral sense, I begrudged them none of their success. As an aspiring member of the high-school culturati, I wrote all sorts of grandiose music reviews in my high school newspaper and explained to anyone who would listen that this was real, emotionally honest music played by genuine, non-robotic musicians. I must have made a hundred blanket statements about how Modest Mouse in particular was the best band in the United States, and how their hard work had miraculously paid off while they sacrificed little if any of the howling, desolate sound and depressive lyrics that made them so good in the first place. I never saw their breakthrough as a form of selling out, and dismissed the possibility that widespread success would lead them to become more milquetoast in the years ahead. To take that kind of protective attitude towards anything—“I don’t want them to get bigger because I like that they’re our little secret”—seemed provincial at best and miserly at worst. Of course, my principled anti-elitism did not pay off. Each band has released new material since 2004, and none of it has been any good.
I haven’t suddenly stopped wishing money and success upon my favorite musicians since then, but I have realized (not just in music) that reflexive anti-elitism is kind of stupid. This is unfortunate because not many words are more lethal in present-day political discourse, and on the right, “elitist” has taken on the same power as an epithet that “racist” has on the left—it’s an “othering” insult that places its target entirely outside the bounds of the community by making that person the antithesis of what the community imagines itself to represent. More cynically, both insults may be accurate but can also be hurled casually and applied broadly, and there isn’t really any good way to answer their charges. If you really want to believe that someone is the nasty thing you’re calling him or her, any vigorous protest to the contrary—be it a fiery rebuttal or a foot-stamping, petulant whine—only serves to confirm what you knew all along. It’s an instant, trouble-free way to close out an argument, much less mentally taxing than having to prove, for example, that your argument is supported by evidence or logic.
How this word, of all words, became the favorite insult of the right is a story with many moving parts. There’s the Southern Strategy and the animus it stirred up, equal parts fear of inner cities and impoverished, urban blacks, and loathing of the effete, pointy-headed liberals that shared the same urban spaces (even if their apartments were nicer). There’s the solidifying of a conservative voting bloc that feels it represents something intrinsic and pure about the American character—something scrappy and rural and radically populist, like a chapter straight out of De Tocqueville. There is the flight of many educated people to the Democratic Party as the American right got taken over by religious fundamentalists, which has made it easier for Republicans to rail against overeducated elitists and not run the risk of insulting members of their own party. And just like the inane talking point about how the government should balance its checkbook every month just like a normal household does, this little scrap of identity politics is no longer the province of the right alone. It’s been adopted enthusiastically by lazy moderates and Democrats who want to seem like populists. In the process, they’ve forgotten that the worst sin in politics shouldn’t be elitism; it should be ignorance.
It’s refreshing to find people who will push back against this trend. Aaron Sorkin has been at it for years (even if he’s often grating when he does so). One of the most thrilling moments in The West Wing is in the episode when President Bartlet, a Nobel laureate in economics, is ramping up for his reelection race against a folksy, George Bush-style Southern governor. Toby Ziegler, the morose, wisecracking Brooklyn Jew who is White House communications director, gives the speech of a lifetime to his boss: “You’re not plain-spoken. You’re not ‘just folks.’ Do not, do not, do not act like it.” The Newsroom has taken its share of beatings, most of them deserved, but I did feel a small frisson of pleasure a couple of weeks ago when Jeff Daniels said on the air that he and his team would pick the stories to tell because “We are the media elite.” The power to choose stories can be incredibly dangerous in the hands of the wrong elite, but hearing someone (even a fictional character) own his membership in it was a nice break from reality, where members of the media elite can’t stop trying to remind us that they’ve still got the common touch.
It’s an election year, so unfortunately this year we’re getting an extra dose of reporters telling us how wonderful it is that average, hardworking Americans in Orlando and Dayton and Des Moines have a simple, common-sense sort of wisdom that leads them to blame the president for the high price of gas. But in Washington, standing with the common man is a task that requires constant vigilance. An acquaintance of mine works for a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining Social Security more or less as it exists today, and when I mentioned to him once that it’s not entirely unreasonable to worry about Social Security running out of money, he snorted and replied, “Yeah—maybe if you’re a member of the Washington elite.” I tried to imagine a universe in which this well-spoken, well-informed graduate of a top university lived in Washington and was not a member of the Washington elite. I was unable to do so. I don’t think of myself as part of the Washington elite either, but I have no doubt that to most people who don’t follow politics and don’t live here, my job and my education make me a member in good standing.
From my friend, we just go up the ladder until we reach The Washington Post. At some point, during one of the few weeks each year when the Post staff collectively decides whether President Obama is an elitist and whether it matters, one columnist wrote, “I am in favor of elite leadership. I despise elitism.” It may seem obvious to point out that there are several kinds of elites and that some kinds of elitism are clearly worth despising, but have we really come to the point where someone who makes an obviously elitist statement has to follow it up by pointing out that they are absolutely positively not an elitist?
The problem with this sort of rhetoric isn’t just that it’s annoying; it’s that it actively works to eclipse the truth. There may be two sides to every story, but those two sides are not always equally valid, and to call someone out for telling a lie or being sloppy with the facts can make one look smug or uncivil. But this does not change the fact that some opinions are corroborated by evidence, and others are not. Anyone who points this out is usually dismissed as a pedant or a snob. Matt Taibbi, recapping the results of the 2010 elections with David Gergen, a sort of avatar of D.C. Conventional Wisdom, pointed out that most Tea Party voters had not, to put it politely, based their opinions on observable facts. Taibbi called them “crazy,” but that flourish aside, the substance of his argument—that a movement dedicated to low taxes and small government, operating during a time of historically low tax rates and conspicuously absent during the Bush administration, might not have the best handle on reality—was right on target. That didn’t stop Gergen from engaging in a fit of pearl-clutching and gasping that Taibbi was being an awful, awful elitist. No one bothered to actually argue that Tea Party voters were correct about anything, nor did anyone explain to Gergen that a speechwriter and consultant for four presidents had no standing to accuse others of being elitist.
Obviously, the idea that all of modern politics operates in a fact-free zone comes off as intolerably cynical. And while one can certainly accuse modern conservatism of having totally abandoned its moorings, liberals and leftists are hardly immune. I strongly suspect that a powerful, unaccountable transit-workers’ union in Washington, D.C. makes it easier for the Metro to be a civic embarrassment and massive pain in the ass for everyone who lives here. To point that out doesn’t devalue labor unions in general, but that hasn’t stopped some of my friends from looking at me like I’m a picket-busting scab when I say this. A bit of perspective is needed, though, because “Both sides do it!” is exactly the kind of sloppy thinking we should be fighting against. The illusions of a few overeducated leftists are no match for the most successful political movement of the last 30 years. The American right’s pathological hatred of pointy-headedness gives it a convenient way to exit any argument it doesn’t like, and enter a policy fantasyland. When a reporter asked him how cutting taxes would reduce the budget deficit, Speaker John Boehner muttered something about a “Washington game” that he wasn’t going to play, presumably one that involved adding numbers together. By comparison, I was recently talking to a friend from Madrid who was complaining about Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s new austerity budget of spending cuts and huge tax increases. The whole thing is meant to close a massive deficit, so naturally it sounds miserable and is likely to plunge Spain back into recession. But hey, I thought—he’s raising taxes too. At least he’s being honest.