I’ll skip the next half-century, since the tragedy is too well known, and focus instead on the vastly different, contemporary liberal mindset. To be blunt, what strikes us about its recent and most vocal emissaries — politicians such as a Barbara Boxer, John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi; or the Hollywood celebrities; or the great fortuned like a Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or George Soros; or the credentialed technocrats who run the foundations and government agencies, or the high-paid media types in the NY-DC corridor — is how vast apart are the circumstances of their own lives from the objects of their concern. In addition, present-day liberalism finds its most numerous adherents among the upper-middle class suburbanites and those who work for government and enjoy de facto tenure (e.g., the public employee unions, teachers, the public professoriate, etc.).
Let Them Eat Steak
Insulation is the common theme here. To the degree that one’s job insulates one from the vagaries of the marketplace — not just the danger of losing a job, but often the petty humiliation so often integral in making a scarce buck, by selling, peddling, hawking, or working for a business — one is now more likely to support the redistributive state and all its satellite philosophies. And to the degree that one has a good salary and capital, and can buy such insulation — where one lives, where one sends one’s children to school, where one vacations — one is most likely to advocate a sort of politics that will not affect directly oneself. The key then is to insulate oneself from the worry over losing a job and livelihood, either by guaranteed employment or ample wealth. (When the London riots started to hit the “better” sections, then suddenly the police appeared in real numbers and the unapologetic public anger increased.)
In other words, if one opposes charters and vouchers, supports teachers’ unions, praises the present-day public schools, and champions the therapeutic curriculum, one is still hardly likely to put one’s child in the L.A. or Fresno school system. If one is a strong advocate for more state subsidies and redistributive policies, one will not live in an East Palo Alto, an Orange Cove, or the wrong side of St. Louis or Baltimore where the money is aimed. Liberalism is, like all politics, self-interested, embraced by those who receive transfer payments and those in charge of administering the redistributive state. But it also provides psychic exemption to a new upper class and asks little concrete in return — no tutoring of the illegal alien, no side-by-side residency in the Section 8 apartment to help create “community,” no hiring in the progressive law firm of a ghetto intern in lieu of the Yale undergraduate. It is the worst sort of petty hypocrisy: an exemption for the guilty soul through support of the redistributive state aimed at the noble but unapproachable poor —and through a clear disdain for the crass and aspiring middle class, which lacks the taste of the elite and the supposedly tragic nobility of the impoverished and victimized.
The Apotheosis of Barack Obama
Some are surprised that Barack Obama – the community organizer, the hard-core leftist, the pal of Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright (compare the homes of each), the totem of the left — would buy a mansion and worry about the price of arugula. Or that when president, he would play golf more in three years than the aristocratic Bush did in eight. Or that in recessionary times, when iconic presidential sacrifice is critical, the First Family would favor Martha’s Vineyard, Vail, and Costa del Sol over the White House grounds or Camp David.
But this disconnect again is logical not aberrant. It is precisely because Obama rails about “fat cats,” “corporate jet owners,” “millionaires and billionaires,” and pontificates about “redistributive change,” “enough money,” “spread the wealth,” and “unneeded income” that he feels spiritually cleansed and so can satisfy his natural appetites for the good rarified life. On Monday swear that corporate jets blew up the budget, on Tuesday feel free to host corporate jet fly-in donors who pay $50,000 to hear you rail about the pernicious culture of corporate jets. Mutatis mutandis, so too an Al Gore or John Kerry.
Human nature argues that contemporary liberalism does not work; but if one is not proximate to human nature in the raw, then one can find psychological penance in promoting something that will never come back to haunt you. Let a flash mob hit Park Avenue or have a group from East Palo Alto swarm the quad at Stanford, or have a Malibu star’s kid shoved about in a downtown L.A. school, or an open borders idealist live in an apartment in Calwa, and then one sees first hand the real-time dividends of a distant elite channeling state money to the less fortunate.
The Wages of Hypocrisy
Barack Obama has hit 39% approval in the Gallup poll. Pundits point to the debt, to the mixed-up foreign policy, to ObamaCare, to his grating sermons on civility, to his blame-Bush fixations, to the serial banality of his inauthentic cadences and his canned Nixonian “make no mistake about it” and “let me be perfectly clear” emphases. All that is true.
But much of our public weariness stems from his loud liberal hypocrisy. Our president lectures about a certain sort of school he never has sent his child to. He talks about “folks” with whom he has never wished to vacation. Unlike a Truman or Humphrey, he sough office not to help those clingers with whom he might have wished to associate, but to feel good about wanting to help from a safe distance from those with whom he most certainly did not wish to mingle.
Golfing or walking the Martha’s Vineyard beach, in the fashion of Kerry’s 7th estate getaway or million-dollar yacht, makes one fret over “why lucky me?” — and requires an antidote of one or two spread-the-wealth sermons a week.
The weird sudden appearance of swarmy, young urban and highly-educated leftist bloggers, with little experience in the physical world or with manual labor, is likewise logical given that most do not raise families in the barrio or shop in the ghetto, or teach school on the wrong side of town or try to buy a house and support three kids on $70,000, or even hit the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Only such abstract liberal advocacy can square the circle of self-absorbed concerned metrosexuality.
As we saw last week in Britain and in some American cities, liberal redistributionism makes far worse the innate problems it was hailed to solve. But it remains a powerful narcotic to an aberrant elite, one that feels guilty over its apartheid circumstances and is desperately seeking spiritual redemption on the cheap.
Barack Obama was contemporary America’s clearest example of just such an iconic liberalism — both as a purveyor and a recipient. Just as voting for Obama gave a pass to so many, so too for Barack Obama his own rhetoric and advocacy provide a pass for his own preferences. Liberalism has gone from a first-hand concern for equality of opportunity to a psychological condition of very blessed, but equally unhappy, people.