Sunday, April 13, 2008

Who Are They Calling Elitist? by ERIC ALTERMAN

The contemporary conservative obsession with the "liberal elite" has its origin in the campaign of 1964, when Ronald Reagan crisscrossed the country in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential aspirations, accusing liberals of believing that "an intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves." Richard Nixon took up the cudgel in his second State of the Union speech, complaining that "a bureaucratic elite in Washington knows best what is best for people everywhere." But it was Nixon's Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who, aided by speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire, showed right-wingers what political potential lay in this line of attack, with his orgies of alliteration regarding the evildoings of various "pusillanimous pussyfooters," "hopeless hysterical hypochondriacs of history," "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "effete corps of impudent snobs," to pick just a few of his favorite epithets for liberal opponents in the media and academia.

Since then, no right-wing campaign has been complete without some form of repudiation of what former Vice President Dan Quayle named the liberal "cultural elite," whose avowed purpose is to undermine all that is admirable and virtuous in Middle America, or as Quayle termed it, "the rest of us." (Asked to define the evildoers, Quayle responded, "They know who they are.") Quayle's addition of the word "cultural" to "elite," coupled with his attack on a popular television character, single mom/anchorwoman Murphy Brown, was a stroke of genuine genius, as it allowed conservatives to continue to feel themselves oppressed even as they gained control of virtually all of the levers of political power in the United States and much of the news media. Liberals' power, conservatives continue to insist, trumps political power because we allegedly control the "culture." Today it is all but impossible to hear the word "liberal" without the word "elite" attached.

It's hard to know exactly what conservatives mean by the accusation of elitism, as it appears to fit almost any occasion...[Open in new window]


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