Here’s a better question: Isn’t that exactly backwards? Politico rightly identifies the cause of the rise of populist movements on the Right and the Left as rejections of elitism, but crabs backward to the essential problem. The real problem is a disconnect between the governing class and the governed, and yet Ian Ward wonders how the governed can come to understand their elite overlords:
The recent rise of populist movements in the United States has made it clear that Americans think elites yield too much influence over the country’s political life. On the right, this belief has fueled the rise of figures like Donald Trump, who came to power decrying the influence of “liberal elites” and promising to transfer political power to average Americans. On the left, anti-elite sentiments have crystallized behind progressive figures like Bernie Sanders, whose critique of the top one percent of economic elites has earned him a national following.
Sure, the left and right frame the problems with and solutions to elite influence in radically different ways, but at their core, these movements share a common presumption: To understand what’s gone wrong with American democracy, you have to understand how elites think.
But how, exactly, can we get inside the heads of America’s political elite?
The problem afflicting American self-governance isn’t a failure of the hoi polloi to understand the elite. It’s a failure of the plebes in understanding the proles. Actually, that doesn’t do the problem justice — the real problem isn’t that the plebes don’t understand the proles, it’s that they have no interest in what the proles want or think. The plebes operate on the assumption that their knowledge for what is best for the proles is superior and that they don’t need to hear from the great unwashed. All they want is for the great unwashed to keep electing them and their patrons to office or consume their media output, and otherwise keep our mouths shut.
This, by the way, is one very big reason why the founders ensured a significant limitation on federal government. They understood that accountability shrinks with distance, and so they structured the constitutional order on the principle of subsidiarity. The closer that government gets to the governed, the more accountable it becomes, but also the more familiar it becomes. The town-hall form of government is true self-governance, where citizens know each other and have to come together to make decisions. State governments may have less subsidiarity, but they’re a lot closer than Congress and significantly more accountable.
Over the last century, starting with Woodrow Wilson, the US has increasingly gravitated to elite, autocrat rule rather than self-governance. More power has accrued to Washington, and more of it has been passed to unaccountable agencies with unelected commissioners who issue rules nearly at whim. Congress and the judiciary have abetted this by passing off significant amounts of their own constitutional authority to agencies run by the executive branch, and by expanding definitions of what had been limitations of jurisdiction (such as the Interstate Commerce Clause) into near-meaninglessness.
As a result, much of the elite governing class aren’t even elected to office. Much of the regulation that governs us never came before Congress or any legislature, despite the constitutional order of self-governance through the House and Senate. Subsidiarity has largely vanished, and replaced with a star-chamberesque labyrinth of power in Washington.
That has created a cognitive dissonance that is unsustainable, and that has fueled the rise of populist movements. It’s what happens when people operate on the understanding of self-governance and get disillusioned by the reality of modern American civics. It creates elites who almost by definition fall out of touch with the consenting governed, and that produces ever-more-clear disconnects that even some who support the party of centralized power realize.
JONES: Well, listen, we’re in danger of becoming a party of the very high and the very low. If you pull out the working class you’ve got people who are very well-educated and very well off. Those people talk funny.
Latinx — I’ve never met a Latinx. I’ve never met a BIPOC. I’ve never met, you know, all this weird stuff that these highly educated people say. It’s bizarre. Nobody talks that way at the barber shop and the nail salon, the grocery store, the community center. But that’s how we talk now, so that’s weird.
And then the people who are very low down on the economic ladder need a bunch of stuff. You wind up overpromising — oh, we’re going to give you reparations — to people at the bottom of the economic ladder, talking weird to appeal to people at the top of the economic ladder, and the working class walks away from you. That is the danger we’re facing.
BERMAN: Can I just ask because you’ve been on the show talking about this before. What kind of reaction do you get when you say this? What do hear from national Democrats?
JONES: Well, I think that there is a penalty you pay if you don’t go along with the normal narrative. The normal narrative has been all Black and brown people hate racists. All Republicans are racist so all Black and brown voters are going to vote for Democrats. All of that doesn’t make sense in the real world.
All Republicans are not racist, and Republican appeals are not just racial. Some of them are economic, some of them are cultural, and all Black and brown folks are not liberals.
Yes. Listen, Black and brown folks go to church a lot. If you want Black churchgoers and Latin Catholics to vote for Democrats you’re going to have to do things that make it seem like maybe get those issues, which are primarily economic issues, family issues, bread and butter issues — bread and butter issues. And if you’re going to talk about the cultural issues you’ve got to talk about it in a way that resonates with a working mom or working dad and not just folks who went to college.
The Latinx label is the easiest and clearest example of the current plebe-prole relationship. Hispanic voters weren’t clamoring for a new label; that came straight out of the Academia faculty lounge, as James Carville might have put it, and has been shoved down the throats of Hispanics on the basis of a gender theory that only the elites broadly support. To resist it is to risk being called a bigot by the elites and the media.
“Latinx” is not the sole reason Hispanics elected a Latina Republican in TX-34, of course. But it is emblematic of the response that this kind of toxic elitism produces when it spills over into policy, as it has in the border crisis, on Joe Biden’s “incredible transition” on oil and gas, inflation, crime and “decarceration,” and so on. Those are all the products of elites arrogantly talking only amongst themselves, and that is the product of the evaporation of subsidiarity in American governance.
In short, we shouldn’t have to wonder how the minds of the elite work. In fact, they should be largely irrelevant in our lives, but to the extent that there is any relevance, they should be desperately engaging with the voters to find out what we think — and act accordingly.