Populism and Its Discontents

Ophelia Benson

What do we talk about when we talk about elites?

We should talk about power and money, but too much of the time we talk about snobbery, speaking French, flavored coffee drinks, and similar social markers that may be psychologically wounding but do not, say, keep millions of children in inferior schools or workers in minimum-wage jobs with no benefits.

In July 2016, Rod Dreher at The American Conservative asked J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, a leading question about this more touchy-feely version of elitism:

I’m not a hillbilly, nor do I descend from hillbilly stock, strictly speaking. But I do come from poor rural white people in the South. I have spent most of my life and career living among professional class urbanite(s), most of them on the East Coast, and the barely-banked contempt they—the professional-class whites, I mean—have for poor white people is visceral, and obvious to me. Yet it is invisible to them. Why is that? And what does it have to do with our politics today?

It’s obvious to Dreher, but then he’s been primed to find it obvious, hasn’t he? We all have. It’s been a cliché of political campaigns for decades that liberals are effete snobs, while conservatives are salt-of-the-earth workin’ folks constantly wounded by the scorn of the pointy-headed intellectuals (a.k.a. the Jews). We hear about snooty consumer choices instead of policies on unions and worker protections. Given that background, I have to wonder how much Dreher really does experience professional-class urbanites displaying obvious contempt for poor white people and how much he just imagines he does because we’ve all heard about it a million times.

Vance replied:

To me, this condescension is a big part of Trump’s appeal. He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad. I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion. Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of Mamaw’s feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon. The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders. If nothing else, Trump does that.

Those are not compelling examples of condescension, let alone contempt. Barack Obama was talking about working-class whites clinging to guns and religion because “the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them.” In other words, he was saying their material conditions were bad, which is surely something we want politicians to care about. I think Vance is just engaging in the same displacement behavior that political operatives have been doing for years: it seems we refuse to do much about disappearing factories and shrinking unions, so instead let’s rage at intellectual snobs and elect a rich guy who rages at them too. Donald Trump does perhaps “declare war on the condescenders,” but he also slashes worker protections and fills his Cabinet with bankers.

There’s a passage in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End in which Margaret Schlegel tells her sister Helen that their acquaintance Mr. Wilcox has asked her to marry him. The Schlegels are intellectuals, liberals, thinkers—the worst sort of elitists. Mr. Wilcox is a businessman, or Forster’s idea of one—platitudinous, obtuse, domineering. When Margaret tells Helen her news, Helen bursts into tears:

“Don’t, don’t do such a thing! I tell you not to—don’t! I know—don’t!”

“What do you know?”

“Panic and emptiness,” sobbed Helen. “Don’t!”

Margaret explains what she sees in Mr. Wilcox.

“He has all those public qualities which you so despise and which enable all this—” She waved her hand at the landscape, which confirmed anything. “If Wilcoxes hadn’t worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn’t sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No—perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.”

Well, no. It’s far from only Wilcoxes who made all that happen. Wilcoxes don’t represent all energetic people, all innovators, all skilled technicians, and so on, any more than graduates of Wharton Business School do. Margaret’s “all this” is the product of generations of work by all kinds of people, including the people who actually built the trains and ships and people whose tools reside in their brains. Her masochistic consignment of herself and Helen to the category of useless helpless people who would have their throats cut were it not for Wilcoxes is like the masochism of op-ed writers now who blame liberal elitists for the train wreck of contemporary politics.

It’s been a depressingly successful public-relations campaign, with a double payoff for a certain kind of conservative: it helps anti-intellectual conservatives get elected, and it also makes intellectuals defensive and ashamed. We’ve reached what surely has to be the end point of that campaign, in which a corrupt billionaire ignoramus is framed as the champion of forgotten workers even while he makes every effort to take away their health insurance.

It’s called populism, this sleight of hand, and it’s a cheap con trick that ought not to work as well as it does. It’s another version of what the French philosopher Julien Benda in 1927 called la trahison des clercs, “the treason of the intellectuals.” Benda was talking about intellectuals’ enthusiasm for nationalism, racism, and warmongering, but the treason now is submission before the idea that education is politically suspect while wealth is the sign of a decent, patriotic, God-fearing citizen. We need to resist it.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

It’s been a cliché of political campaigns for decades that liberals are effete snobs, while conservatives are salt-of-the-earth workin’ folks constantly wounded by the scorn of the pointy-headed intellectuals (a.k.a. the Jews).

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