Pick an exegesis
Choice One: There must be some syndrome at work of psychological compensation. For many who seek out the high life, but who are cognizant that the big house, the good vacations, the good schools, the nice night life and socializing, are beyond the reach of most, some sort of genuine guilt ensues. One way of squaring that circle is to go hard left in the abstract as a form of psychological penance that costs little in the concrete—the bloodthirsty medieval knight stopping in at the abbey to confess before the gore of battle.
The more Sean Penn praises Castro, the more the perks of Malibu become to his mind OK. Boat around New Orleans after Katrina and you can cruise around the Pacific Coast Highway with a good conscience. Being rich and left-wing is like a 16th-century sinner buying an indulgence through purchasing a few blocks for the dome at St. Peter’s. Moneyed liberalism allows one to feel good at very little personal expense—surely not having one’s child bussed to an inner-city school, or giving up your legacy slot at Princeton for someone more diverse, or waiting at the LA emergency room with a sick child.
Choice Two: With money also comes a sort of refinement by the very fact that hoi polloi are usually kept at a distance—the Kennedys discussing health care from their beach compound, John Kerry from one of his numerous homes lambasting greed, Governor Corzine, awash in $400 million of Goldman-Sachs bonus money, deploring rightist obstructionism to his anti-poverty plans. In other words, the rich like their alliances with the distant objects of their affection, as long as the many remain suitably distant.
There are never consequences for crazy theoretical positions; money and status ensure insulation from high crime, welfare dependency, or the pernicious culture of the underclass. And to write as I do here is to be envious, impractical, irrelevant, blind, etc. to equally bad rich conservatives (who at least admit to being champions of the capitalism that enriched them and to want others to do as well as have they).
The key I think here is an ill-at-ease feeling, not with the poor, or even with the middle class, but with the upper-middle class, or anyone in general that strives to be rich. This is the image of the town-hall money-grubbers, without kids in prep schools, without proper degrees, the ancient polypragmones of Aristophanes’ comedies who hustle to make a drachma through tanning, pottery, and shipping. Joe the Plumber or Sarah Palin is like Petronius’s freedmen who stoop to bite and pick up sesterces in the dung, and are soiled by the efforts at acquisition.
Obamamism’s targets are wannabees, who lack the proper sophistication that real wealth ensures. Again, note the hatred of Sarah Palin and her followers: how dare this upstart sell her memoirs, this winking, you-betcha tart whom we’d never let in a Georgetown party. For many, liberalism, in contrast, is the proper social accoutrement for big money, a tasteful indulgence like driving a XK-150 Jaguar rather than an Escalade, cruising in a Gar wood boat, or having hardwood, machine-worn hickory floors in the kitchen instead of linoleum. Yes, snobbery is part of high liberalism. It is a fashion marker that says: “I want high taxes, because for me they are as superfluous as white lace and crystal.”
Choice Three: There is some real big money in leftwing capitalism. Look at Gore again, and his outrage when asked about the propriety of it all (his argument boils down to: ‘How dare you to insinuate that me, Al Gore, savior of your planet, would ever be interested in making a hundred million off it!), or Charles Rangel’s furor at questions about his corruption, or the Kennedy shock that anyone would ask how the former bootlegging fortune out-trusted ninety years of inheritance laws to reach distant offspring intact.
We don’t associate hardball, tawdry shenanigans with the creation of the Buffett, or Turner or Gates fortune. Even modest fortunes like that of democratister Terry McAuliffe do not receive careful scrutiny when we understand their creators are “with the people” and for whom money-making was always incidental, a brief pause between public service.
Franklin Rains essentially looted what he could get from Freddie Mac, but as a man of the people such despicable compensation was, well, a mere distraction from populism. In other words, liberalism is smart business practice in the world of big money, an enhancement of right-wing capitalist me-first money-making. The wealthier the Wall Street wheeler-dealer, the more likely, in Robert Rubin fashion, one was to embrace Clinton and Obama. Hundred-million-dollar liberalism not only legitimizes and shields great wealth, but says, “Oh, by the way, for a few years I dabbled as one of those lucre-chasing capitalists and found what they do quite easy, actually.”
A couple of final thoughts. We are a long way from Harry Truman’s fair deal Democratic party, like it or not. The theme seems to be that high taxes hardly hamper liberal elites but are necessary to fund the entitlements for the poor and lower middle classes, who in turn promise political support for those for whom money has become of less interest. Not all of this is new: think of the noblesse oblige of FDR or JFK. But rarely has the quest for the good life so permeated the ranks of liberal elites and been so juxtaposed to the rhetoric of fairness and egalitarianism.
Government—the mother’s milk of the poor and wealthy
The push-back to all this is not Republican, but a populist distrust of elites and the cozy government they craft. Americans by and large not only resent higher taxes, but feel that the additional revenue makes things worse not better, by either politicizing public service or corrupting the nature of the recipient. The rich liberal has others go to the DMV for him. The lower middle class gets a job at the DMV. But the middle class waits in line for hours for service from the SEIU clerk behind the window, who can’t be fired as a loyal constituent of big government. Sorry about the stereotyping of hard-working public employees (who more than anyone deplore the corruption of their workplace), but you get the picture.