The irony of this presidential election (2016) is that liberals, once champions of the underserved disadvantaged, and marginalized; and critics of wealthy elites, have changed their tune. Only some bars of the melody have been kept intact. Not all families struggling for traction in a bewilderingly competitive economy are equal. The minority poor deserve and receive more attention because they are doubly put upon. Not only do they live in poverty and ghettoized by social dysfunction but they still labor in the traces of racism and slavery.
If this selective discrimination were not enough, progressives have demonized the white underclass. Not only are they not deserving of understanding, opportunity, and support; they are part of the problem. The white lower middle class is steeped in racial hatred, ignorantly embraces discredited Biblical myths and historically inaccurate injunctions, clings to outdated views of sexuality and the role of women, and arms itself against imaginary, seditious foes.
Even worse, progressives find populism, an uprising of the white lower-middle class threatening. It is bad enough that individual Americans hold retrograde ideas; but a collectivity of ignorance is terrible indeed. Although progressives direct their fear at Donald Trump, they really hold his supp0rters responsible for his rise. Without the support of ignorant, backwoods, inbred millions, he would be no more than a side show.
Populism, a modern form of the Twentieth Century socialist movements so much admired by the American Left, has now been discredited. Not only is this newly-energized mass of uneducated Americans threatening. It is distasteful, rancid, and off-putting. The patronizing nature of early 21st Century liberalism felt good. White, well-educated, intellectually enlightened men and women of the coasts were proud of their support of civil, gender, and ethnic rights, and proudly wore the badges of battle. What to do with white trash?
The liberal establishment and not a few of their Republican counterparts have been flummoxed by the popularity of Donald Trump, dismayed by the support of his ragged, intemperate supporters, and desperately committed to derailing his candidacy. If he his not the devil incarnate, he is pretty close to it.
Ironically today’s progressives are reminiscent of Alexander Hamilton who, like them, was very concerned about popular democracy and the tyranny of the masses. Hamilton expressed his conviction in the Federalist Papers:
When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.
Hamilton would be appalled if he saw the state of American democracy today. Not only has populism become the norm, but the mob the rule. The old institutions of his day have been dismantled and a contentious free-for-all has resulted. The era of intelligent compromise based on a respect for principles is long gone, replaced by factionalism and separatism. The church has become a locus of religious populism rather than a conduit of divine authority. Congressmen care less about their constituents than getting re-elected. The old patrician caretakers of Wall Street have been replaced by financial predators lured by quick, risk-free profit. Capitalism has always been ruled by the bottom line but never more so than today.
Social elites like the Boston Brahmins, Main Line aristocrats, New England patricians, and Southern cavaliers have been dismantled. The former custodians of good manners and compassion within opportunity, governed by noblesse oblige and responsibility have disappeared.
The French aristocracy, said a former viscount whose family had fought in the Third Crusade, would always be necessary for the preservation and promotion of those cultural values now, after centuries of civilization, were innate in French society. Although respect for art, literature, philosophy, and good taste came naturally to every French citizen, they could quickly be dismissed in favor of more pedestrian ones. He, now much older, was dismayed at the course of the French republic, one beset by racial, ethnic, and religious factionalism. The Old Guard was simply too small, too diluted, and too ineffectual to provide the moral suasion and power to hold the center.
Political and social elites have always had the function of guardians of civilization, custodians of cultural history, and icons of value and rectitude. America gave up true aristocracy at its founding, but continued with its own democratic aristocracy. Washington, Jefferson, Monroe and others were patrician landowners as well as intellectual and philosophical leaders. They were part of a new American ruling class, but one which still embodied Old World, Enlightenment values. Gradually and progressively, the culture of the landed gentry and that of its urban sophisticated counterpart disappeared to be replaced by populism, separatism, and individualism.
The Eastern Establishment is the only remnant of our former American elite; but it predominates not because of the rightness of its moral and ethical principles but because of an undemocratic arrogation of intellectual authority. Eastern liberals have no sense of noblesse oblige . Only a patronizing self-congratulatory ‘solidarity’ with those less fortunate. They are as insular as the old WASP elites, but hew to only secular, neo-socialist values. They have less concern for the integrity of the nation as a whole than they do in promoting the ‘rights’ of minorities and their absolute right to project and defend their own individual identities.
It is hard to see where the new moral center of American society will be. Right now we are without a center, without an intellectually temperate, morally anchored, socially appropriate anchor. Without it, America has become ungovernable; or in the absence of a moral consensus which provides a civil brake, authoritarian. It is a chaotic country, one fractured along every possible fault line, one still claiming exceptionalism but without purpose, vision, or commitment.
If Donald Trump does not get elected, his tens of millions of newly-energized supporters will not quietly return home. Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the Left, animated by progressive enthusiasm for race, gender, and ethnicity, committed to secularism and government patronage will, if elected, harden the political divisions and the country will be even more chaotic than ever.
If he does, the future is less clear. We are in new and uncharted political territory. Anything can happen. The enthusiasm of Trump’s radicalized supporters may be hard to channel into policy, programs, and positions.
Perhaps this political paroxysm and civil fractiousness is exactly what we need to be able to find a center or at least a recasting of American identity. Far from exceptional, we are rudderless and foundering without elites or institutions to guide us. We can only hope for the best.