In 2004, liberals were dismayed by the Middle American working class voting Republican. Thomas Frank wrote what became the official polite explanation for this paradoxical development in What’s the Matter with Kansas? I pose the opposite, equally historically weird question: What’s the matter with Greenwich? Why have America’s wealthy gone blue?
Here are some possibilities (please add your own):
1. Standards of taste within communities are self-sustaining. In other words, elites are liberal because elites are liberal. Once a standard of taste is established in a group, it becomes a marker of its members, hence a condition of acceptance into the group; so everyone seeking membership conforms to the standard, and so on in a virtuous circle. An illustration: future elites on Ivy League campuses abandon religious belief, more often because they are made to feel religion is icky and low-class—a potential social albatross when mingling with high-status, bright, young secular things from New York and London—than because they are rationally convinced of its untruth or badness. Post-graduation, they, by their existence as elite seculars, become the guardians of the standard that once cowered them. The same basic mechanism operates on other markers of cultural conservatism.
But that just postpones the question: how did liberals corner the elites in the first place?
2. Elite status is correlated with extensive academic education, which also correlates with political liberalism. This is not a slur against conservatism. That a belief is held by the intellectual classes does not prove that the belief itself is intelligent – there was a time when the smart set distinguished itself by its devotion to Freud and Marx. Universities are the keepers of the gate in our meritocracy, so their biases will be manifest among the meritocrats who must spend more time absorbing their narratives the higher they desire to climb in the hierarchy. The ultimate origin of academic left bias is another question for another day…
3. Displays of generosity may be a way of signaling high status. A benefactor is ipso facto assuming higher status than those she benefits. Ostentatiously displaying charity and generosity—by, e.g., aligning oneself with the grand visions and good intentions of progressivism—may then be either an inclination developed by the achievement of high status, or a tactic used to enhance one’s perceived status.
4. Flaunting of traditional moral norms signals high status. This is established by social psychology. But I’m skeptical of its relevance to politics: like David Brooks, I find that today’s liberal elite really aren’t all that transgressive—they make bohemian gestures but are essentially bourgeois. But this explanation might be more relevant to the past, to the formative years of today’s elites—the 1960s, when self-styled campus revolutionaries were predominantly upper-middle-class cool kids.
5. Liberal governance is actually in the self-interest of the elite. This is a possibility that gets little consideration: people assume that because progressive idealists intend the redistribution of wealth and power, their politics will effect that end. But the world is more complicated. Onerous regulations work to the benefit of the legal class, who will get paid higher fees the more anxious firms are about compliance. The more complex the regulations, the higher the economic value of a Harvard Law degree. The finance industry as a whole may benefit from governments, federal and municipal, issuing a lot of debt (I might be totally wrong about this). More generally, high-status groups necessarily benefit from greater centralization of power: if I’m a successful business guy, there’s a good chance my brother has the capability to be a successful government guy. Even if it increases my individual tax burden, I might like a world with more centralized power in Washington, because it is one in which my family members and college buddies have more opportunities for distinguishing themselves with high status, income, and power. (An aside: perhaps we should stop using “Greenwich” as a synechdoche for the wealthy—after all, most of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. are now outside of Washington.)
6. Kansas, inverted: Thomas Frank can be turned right on his head. Progressive activists exploit the culture war, promoting paranoia about “Bible thumpers” in the hinterlands, to scare the rich into voting against economic sense, and their economic interest. My experience suggests to me that social and culture war issues are actually more salient in big cities, college campuses, and the upper-middle class, than they are in the environments Thomas Frank described. New York journalists’ belief that Middle American voters are bitter with resentments over “Guns, God, and Gays,” may, ironically enough, actually be an elaborate projection, reflecting the preoccupations of the journalists themselves rather than the objects of their reports.
7. Finally, conservatives have been hostile to elites. Conservative culture-war rhetoric against the “liberal elite” may well be justified. But conservatives can’t then pretend to be shocked when elites hit back.
A note: it’s easy to go too far in giving a psychoanalytic account of the politics of any group, rather than listening to their own explanations. My defense is: I don’t do this habitually. No doubt, many elite liberals have derived their politics from rational deliberation. But they have group biases, too, which, due to their outsized power, are particularly important to examine.
So, any other ideas? Identifying the sociological drivers could be a key to assessing—even undermining—the cultural and political self-confidence of the elite.