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Bernie Sanders’s Misguided Attacks on the “Liberal Elite”

Rather than highlighting class differences, the phrase beclouds them.

Scott Eisen / Getty Images

“We need a Democratic Party that is not a party of the liberal elite but of the working class of this country,” Senator Bernie Sanders declared at a rally in Boston last week. This has become a very common refrain for Sanders specifically and the progressive left generally. After the election, Nation editor at large D.D. Guttenplan declared that liberal elites who spurned populism are responsible for President Donald Trump, while Chris Hedges argued last month that Trump’s greatest allies are, unwittingly, liberal elites.

“The elites, who live in enclaves of privilege in cities such as New York, Washington and San Francisco, scold an enraged population,” he wrote at Truthdig. “They tell those they dismiss as inferiors to calm down, be reasonable and patient and trust in the goodness of the old ruling class and the American system.”

Those damn liberal elites! They sip Starbucks in their Priuses while headed to a Harvard lecture about Hollywood film—or to the Hollywood set of a film about Harvard. These corrupt effete meritocrats are the truly powerful ones in America. May populism rise up and destroy them, so that inequality and smugness alike will vanish from the Earth.

But it’s worth asking: If all these full-throated attacks on liberal elitism ended with the ascension of a racist, sexist authoritarian who has a gross history of mistreating working people, then is attacking liberal elitism really the proper strategy for the opposition to Trump? Maybe the left should think about going back to attacking a more tried and true bugaboo: the wealthy.

Many on the left use “liberal elites” as a substitute for “wealthy,” of course, but it’s a confusing substitute, not least because rich people tend to be more conservative and to vote Republican, as they did in the last election. Meanwhile, bloated plutocrats like Trump, the Koch brothers, the Bushes, Carl Icahn, and Paul Ryan embrace openly regressive policies. And yet, pundits across the political spectrum hardly ever inveigh against the “conservative elite.”

Rather than highlighting class differences, the phrase “liberal elitism” beclouds them. In doing so, it plays into the very ideology of neoliberalism that leftists claim to hate.

Back before the French Revolution, conservatives used to defend inequity on the grounds of tradition, religion, or stability; kings and the nobility ruled by divine right. The rich had been granted their wealth by God, for the preservation of order and goodness. That myth has been replaced with new ones. Social Darwinism held that the robber barons scrambled to the top of the heap because they were the fittest and most worthy. Neoliberal ideology doesn’t rely on evolutionary trappings, but keeps the core point. For neoliberalism, class isn’t based on old money or heredity, but on meritocratic professionalism.

Neoliberal ideology maintains that the wealthy are wealthy because they are intelligent and work hard. Today’s upper class supposedly isn’t composed of bloated hereditary capitalists squatting on their parents’ wealth, but of dynamic go-getters like software genius, Bill Gates (whose family was wealthy) and real-estate genius, Donald Trump (whose family was also wealthy).

When conservatives sneer at liberal elites, their complaint is largely a cultural one. But when progressives do so, it’s an attack on meritocrats: They hate the “liberal elites” not for, say, demanding safe spaces on college campuses, but for believing their fancy college education makes them better than everyone else.

But in its base assumptions, the left’s use of the phrase “liberal elite” unintentionally agrees with the neoliberal vision. After all, if the truly powerful villains in American society are its technocrats and overachievers, then it would seem the plutocrats and nepotists have been dethroned. Taking their place for widespread derision are the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and New England professors and Hollywood actors and Acela corridor media pundits—people who, allegedly but not always in reality, got where they are through skill and commitment.

Some people in these liberal elite professions are quite well off and even wealthy. But there are also an awful lot of adjuncts and low-level coders and freelance writers out there barely scraping by, one health scare away from penury. Defining “elite” in terms of what job you do or, worse, where you live endorses the neoliberal view that capitalism has fundamentally changed in character, and that meritocrats have replaced capitalists in the corridors of power.

When journalist Chris Arnade, for insance, argues that Trump and Sanders represent the “revolt of the back row kids” against front-row types like Hillary Clinton, he’s analytically replacing divisions based on class with divisions based on paying attention in class. For Arnade, merit—doing well in school—replaces money as the fundamental organizer of social divisions. Arnade sympathizes with those who have lost out in neoliberalism, but he accepts neoliberalism’s account of how losers and winners are structured.

And yet, neoliberalism is a lie. As Thomas Piketty showed in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, hereditary wealth and the concentration of power today look a lot like they did in the eighteenth century; then as now, the surest way to get rich is by being born rich. Supposed meritocracy doesn’t change that dynamic. If anything, it compounds it. The wealthy once felt it was beneath them to work; now they eagerly take cushy CEO jobs for massive salaries, adding bloated income to bloated family fortune. The class enemy is the same as it’s always been.

The right uses “liberal elite” as a rhetorical distraction. When the left uses the phrase, it plays into the hands of those who want to obscure class lines. “Liberal elite” makes people think of Meryl Streep or their local college professor, when they should be directing their ire at Jamie Dimon, Peter Thiel, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump. So forget “liberal elites.” Let’s start attacking the real enemy, using language that clarifies rather than obscures. They’re “the rich,” “the plutocrats,” “the wealthy.” Perhaps we should even revive a well-worn but still relevant epithet: “capitalist pigs.”