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America's Elites Further Separate Themselves From Everyone Else

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Last year at this time, I discussed the Great Disconnect -- the degree to which debates about pressing policy issues were being framed by the class perspectives of the people who shape those debates -- politicians, pundits, academics and the like. I wrote:

To borrow Christopher Lasch's phrase, what we've witnessed for thirty-odd years now is a revolt -- of the elites against the masses -- whether in journalism, or academia or in the corridors of political power. In this revolt, the elite professional strata most responsible for shaping our political and economic discourse have at once grown richer and, predictably, have increasingly articulated an ideological worldview justifying their privileged positions (Robert Frank's book, The Winner Take All Society, aptly captured many of these dynamics over a decade ago). The priorities they've articulated -- business-friendly economic policies (including a generally knee-jerk hostility to unionism and uncritical support for "free" trade), so-called moderation, centrism and prudence in addressing major social problems (with a tendency to focus on the necessity of individual behavioral changes and an aversion to significant government intervention in the economy except when it comes to bailing out major financial interests), a concern for bi-partisanship and civility in elite discourse -- make perfect sense for people who enjoy full material security and all of the perks associated with professional prestige and opportunity.

A year ago, the major substantive policy issue was health care reform and the contours of that policy discussion followed these class lines. A year later, the most significant public policy issue under discussion is the continued stagnation of the economy. But the class dimensions underlying the current debate are the same as the ones I wrote about a year ago. Paul Krugman uses the term "pain caucus" to describe the growing chorus of well-placed and well-respected people who believe that we have to cut spending even in the face of continued economic stagnation and growing immiseration. New data show that poverty is at a fifteen year high and inequality at an all-time high. And yet it has become a more-than-respectable mainstream view that we're too far in debt to spend more money. This version of respectability is deeply informed by class. It prioritizes appearance and comportment in the form of fiscal responsibility, though a very particular kind of fiscal responsibility that largely overlooks the reckless policies that have made the rich super-rich at the expense of everybody else (and it can't be said often enough -- David Cay Johnston's work makes clear that the explosion of wealth among the already very-rich is coming at the expense of everybody else). That's because when wealthy interests successfully lobby Congress to rig policies in their favor, often far from public view, they're playing an old gentleman's game. By contrast, when people plead for the government to help the poor, well they're just grubby free-loaders looking for a handout (and their advocates dirty hippies or "elitists" who think they "know better.")

The Obama-appointed deficit commission reflects these dynamics well. Its nineteen members have deliberated behind closed doors on what a growing number of people believe will be a proposed package of "reforms" to include cuts in people's benefits. Of course, no one on the commission will be relying entirely on social security for their retirement income, whereas a growing proportion of Americans will.

This particular Brahmin version of fiscal rectitude also requires relative mumness about our profligate military spending, since the national security state and its relationship to American capital abroad benefits no one so much as it does our globalized political and economic elites (it sure doesn't serve ordinary American workers particularly well) and because men of affairs know that gentlemanly manliness requires a strong hand abroad (Especially when the class dimensions of our war-related casualties are so clear).

The new ideology of fiscal pruning in the face of tenacious and growing economic suffering is the economic version of American militarism. In both economic and military affairs, cloistered and coddled elites, whose personal security will never be threatened, continue to act with more and more "toughness" to put other people in harm's way in pursuit of abstract "principles" whose concrete benefits these elites can barely coherently explain. In economic policy, it's the specter of inflation, or an inevitable revolt by the bond market, though there's no evidence that either of these developments is at all likely in the near future. In military affairs, it's the perpetuation of multiple occupations and a global military presence presumably deployed to fight terror despite the fact that there is no good evidence that such a military effort is having any tangible, positive impact in that fight and plenty of evidence that it's only making things worse.

But that's how the Great Disconnect increasingly works -- that people of great means and material security continue to insist on policies that it's in everyone's interest that we adopt policies which will not, in any way, affect their personal circumstances, but will affect profoundly and adversely the circumstances of a growing swath of ordinary Americans.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press.