Against the “liberal elite” media trope

Front cover of the book What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, with the sub-heading "How conservatives won the heart of America". The cover has an image of an elephant on top of a donkey.A favourite claim of the alt-right, populist right, whatever you want to call them, is that their liberal opponents (whether they be in the Labour party, the Lib Dems themselves, the pro-European wing of the Tory party, the Democratic party in the USA) are a “liberal elite” which is entirely out of touch with the mass of the population which agrees with them. These days it’s a favourite claim of Brexiteers, UKIP and right-wing Tories but has been a staple of the right-wing tabloid press since at least the 1980s — “left-wing do-gooders” is an older variant on the same trope. A few years ago Trevor Phillips, when a UKIP conference-goer refused to speak to him for reasons that were not explained, he used this as an example of how the “liberal metropolitan elite” were distrusted by the ‘ordinary’ (white) voter, but he did not question how liberal or how metropolitan the British elite was. The same is true of people who use these phrases as insults today.

Every so often I see people complaining that this “liberal elite” refuses to talk to anyone outside their little bubble or who disagrees with them. Very often it’s a liberal offering a diagnosis of why the left are failing to make headway with the ‘masses’ — because they despise them as ignorant bigots, goes the story. What they fail to realise is that they are echoing a long-standing right-wing claim which has a long history both here and in the USA. When the Right wants to secure the votes of ordinary people whose economic interests they in fact oppose, they demonise that class’s real champions, be they liberals or, in previous decades, trade unions. They portray them as arrogant, wealthy, out of touch and as seeking to keep the working class “in their place” and dependent on them rather than removing the supposed shackles and letting them achieve their potential. Their agenda often involves removing protections for workers that stops them being fired at will or for no good reason, imposing restrictions on strikes, removing consumer or environmental protections and many other laws that benefit ordinary people while constraining business, none of which could take place unless people are conditioned to hate those they previously considered their leaders or at least those for whom they might have been expected to vote previously.

When people lazily rattle off the “liberal elite” trope, they conveniently forget that not everyone with the opinions they refer to are an elite in any sense. I know many people who oppose the Coalition’s welfare cuts, who support improved public transport, who oppose Brexit and who are not hostile to immigration or, frankly, racist who are in no sense an elite, either educationally or financially. Many are disabled, have mental health problems, live in poverty and not all have degrees and if they do, it will not be from a prestigious university. Most of us have family members who are Tories and who disagree with us and we do not actively avoid their company unless their talk (e.g. insulting our friends who are not white, for example) causes us particular offence. When Phillips made his programme on UKIP, the actual political elite were based in the south-east but not London; they had degrees from Oxford and Cambridge and hung around well-heeled towns such as Henley on Thames. They had very few policies that could be considered liberal other than support for gay marriage. The actual intellectual class (teachers, university professors, writers and so on) were being forced out of London, in particular, by rising house prices that the Coalition and preceding Labour governments encouraged.

The same argument is being used to demand that we all accept policies which are not only not liberal, but based in ignorance and bigotry and are often dangerous. We hear the term ‘populist’ used of various types of politics throughout the western world which are often racist, cruel to certain classes of people (e.g. benefit claimants including disabled people, immigrants including refugees) or hostile to science. The government of Hungary, for example, is forcing an American-funded university out of Budapest because of suspicion of its main funder, George Soros; the coalition in Italy has just decided to sack their entire health advisory committee and replace them with “more deserving personalities”. The health minister is from the Five Star Movement which has a history of ‘scepticism’ about vaccines as well as supporting NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) campaigns that opposed replacing major bridges which were unsound, including the infamous bridge that collapsed in Genoa this year. We regularly hear contempt expressed for knowledge; as well as Michael Gove’s notorious “people are sick of experts”, more recently Labour MP Richard Burgon gave a list of how many times “the experts” (i.e. political pundits) had been wrong about which way various votes would go. Brexit apologists such as Matthew Goodwin are known to contrast “university towns” with “non-London England”, as if the latter represented “the people” while the former did not.

Anyone who wants to understand how this trope works should have a read of the book What’s the Matter With America? (reviewed here; published in the USA as What’s the Matter With Kansas?) in which Kansas is taken as a microcosm of how right-wing conservative thinking took hold across much of the country, where politicians with degrees from Yale and who holiday in exclusive New England resorts pretend to be “men of the people” to secure the votes of poor whites in the South and other provincial areas. There is a marked pugnacity to the rhetoric; in the US in particular, liberals are portrayed as effete, latte-sipping ‘metrosexuals’ as opposed to “real men” who drink beer. This is rather reminiscent of the class bully who despises a bright classmate who can pass an exam but cannot get a ball into a net (or its equivalent) — or win a fight.

Rebecca West famously said that she did not know what a feminist was, just that people called her one whenever she expressed an opinion that distinguished her from a doormat. Likewise, people call us the “liberal elite” whenever we express an opinion that differs from the average editorial or front page in the Sun or the Daily Mail. We have a media elite in this country, but it does not consist of Guardian opinion writers (and some of those are Tories anyway), but proprietors and senior editors of tabloids; many of the latter are based overseas (e.g. Rupert Murdoch) and many of the companies are based in tax havens. There may be many ordinary people who support and voted for Brexit, but the people pushing it are the very wealthy with a similar agenda to America’s right-wing Republicans. The so-called liberal elite are ordinary people who think for themselves, not a wealthy or cosseted minority. We go to the same schools, work in the same jobs, watch most of the same TV shows as everyone else. We must not give in to this bullying; we must not stop calling racism what it is, ignorance what it is, the gutter press what it is, and liars, charlatans and phoney “men of the people” what they are.

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