On the right, ‘elitism’ is about brains, not bucks

Celebrating his mini-triumph on the campaign trail last week, Rick Santorum said something revealing.

Speaking in Missouri, Santorum criticized Barack Obama for being an elitist who “thinks he’s smarter than you.”

Dunno about you, but I pray every night that the president of the United States is smarter than I am. If the job of handling the president’s in-box were up to me, we’d be well and truly doomed.

If you found yourself mentally nodding “yes” to any part of that last paragraph, chances are you are a left-of-center person who wonders why Democrats lose so many elections.

If that paragraph had you thinking that I’m a clueless big-city elitist who doesn’t get the real America, then you’re probably a reliable Republican vote.

Conservative activists love to call anyone left of center an arrogant elitist. (If I printed out and stacked all the emails in which I’d been called that, I could stand on top of the pile and look Billy Penn’s statue in the face. )

This talk of elitism confuses a lot of liberals, because they tend to construe the notion of an “elite” in terms of income and economic class. To them, the rich are the elite, with their vacation homes, private jets, gated communities, and priority access to the powerful.

How, liberals wonder, can someone who works at a nonprofit and drives a Subaru be considered an elitist?

And why, oh why, do hordes of working-class people support politicians who cater to the nation’s economic elite, at the working class’ expense?

Well, Rick Santorum let the answer slip. What drives the politics of resentment that dominates the GOP these days is not an envy of rich people. Never was. No, the wellspring is anger at people who seem to think they are smarter than you, that they know better, that they have better taste.

Here’s the deal: If someone is richer than you, it’s easy to imagine that some day you’ll catch up. That’s why lotteries turn big profits.

The notion that someone’s smarter than you, now that’s harder to take. It’s feels like a permanent put-down, a judgment you can never get out from under.

When resentment over this becomes a political agenda, it tends to worship buzz phrases such as “common sense” and “values.” At its worst, it lapses into the refusal to accept inconvenient facts that Stephen Colbert lampooned so brilliantly as “truthiness.”

But the reliance on smarts has its ugly side, too. It can easily lapse into arrogance. It’s particularly obnoxious when a sense of superiority is expressed through mockery of other people’s religion, or their choices in music, clothing or food.

Apparently, to hear the snobs tell it, people who like how Kenny Chesney sings can’t possibly know anything about what’s right for America.

Obama in particular activates this hair-trigger sensitivity to having one’s intellect looked down upon. Recall the furor over Obama’s 2008 remark about voters who “cling to religion.” The comment was a big deal because it spoke to something a lot of people already suspected: This guy just thinks he’s so smart. (And can we just stipulate the obvious fact that race adds a little extra edge to how people who don’t like Obama react to him?)

Obama is not actually a snob, I don’t think. He is someone who values reason and analysis over emotion to an unusual degree, which can make him seem bloodless. But snobbery? No. Snobbery rises from insecurity, and this is not an insecure man.

But a lot of people who voted for Obama are in fact snobs.

Way too often, the frank snobbery of coastal elitists – expressed in Hollywood scripts, advocacy group mailings, Jon Stewart riffs and letters to the editor – piles logs unnecessarily on the fires of conservative resentment.

And as long as the snobs continue to provide the grist of grievance that conservative activists are forever seeking, the Democrats have no hope of building a stable majority.

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