Anti-Classism and the Populist Right

Within the past two decades, the American professional and business world has begun to develop into a caste system based on the college that one attended. It seems that across industries from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, having an Ivy League degree has become the litmus test for intelligence and competence.

There are hundreds of thousands of low income to middle class people, both white and non-white, who are forever shut out of opportunities to utilize their abilities, achieve financial success, and impact the world solely because they did not attend an Ivy League or Ivy-like school.

Sadly, mainstream liberalism not only has ignored the Ivy League caste system, but in many cases some of the worst perpetuators of discrimination based on schooling and class have been “liberal” institutions such as Google. This is a far cry from the 1960s where liberalism stood for fighting the establishment, dismantling hierarchy, and encouraging independent institutions to flourish.

Some of the most eloquent critics of the Ivy League caste system have been right wing Populists such as Pat Buchanan and Ron Unz.  It is a shame that the  major voices criticizing classist hypocrisy within liberalism and liberal policies with classist undertones and the Ivy League caste system are on the populist right. This hurts us, anti-classist progressives since criticism of the Ivy League caste system will get associated with far-right populists.


Criticism of the Ivy League caste system is not “anti-intellectualism” or “anti-education.” Rather it is a criticism of a system that assigns an individual a permanent caste-like place in society based solely on where they are admitted to school at age 17.  As most people know, admission to the Ivy League system is all about class. Exhibit 1: GEORGE W BUSH!

Since right wing populists today do make some valid points about the classism inherent in mainstream liberalism and the Ivy League caste system, we face a quandary similar to two other situations in progressive history:

1. There were human rights violations in certain socialist countries such as Cuba and the USSR. Some progressives opposed such violations. However, how does one draw the line between criticizing human rights violations within a leftist country and strengthening US right wing imperialist opposition to this left wing country?

2.  There was a debate within the left on Ron Paul’s anti-war activism: Should he be opposed like any other right winger, ignored, praised but not supported, supported but not endorsed, endorsed, etc.?

Similarly, to what extent should we support rightwing populists who oppose the Ivy League caste system? How can we acknowledge that their critique of “liberal classism” and the “Ivy League caste system” is correct and even join with them specifically on this issue, without giving credence to their sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant bigotry?

One of the things, I admire most about our current president is Obama’s tendency to admit when the other side may have some valid points on a specific issue.

By ignoring liberal classism, we miss opportunities to bring white working class people into the progressive fold. Let us take an example.

In the 2008 election, Sarah Palin was mocked by some elite liberal’s for not attending the right schools and her lower-middle-class persona. Yes, Sarah Palin deserved to be attacked, but only for her rightwing religious views and ultra-right economics, not her educational and class background. While we did win that election, we missed a golden opportunity.  If we as progressives had openly stated that we did not approve of Sarah Palin, but that attacking her class and education background was bigotry plain and simple, we would have done the following:

1. Weakened classism within America;

2. Developed a culture of opposition to the Ivy League caste system;

3. Denied a piece of ammunition to the far right;

4. Weakened her unofficial movement which is still strong;

5. Demonstrated to white working class people that progressives once again consistently oppose bigotry in any form and truly believe in equal opportunity.

Rather then ignoring each and every claim of “liberal hypocrisy” and “Ivy League elitism” and attributing it to just “dumb redneck populism” or racism, we should acknowledge that every camp in our political system can make a valid point from time to time.

By taking on the mantle of opposing the Ivy League caste system, we will be accomplishing the following:

A. Demonstrating that as progressives, we don’t oppose a criticism of the system just because it comes from the other side;

B. Overcoming elitism and economic inequality within our system;

C. Demonstrating that we progressives truly stand for socioeconomic equality and oppose bigotry and unfair discrimination of any kind. This will allow us to gain credence among excluded low-income whites who otherwise would have gone down the path of right wing producerism.

As progressives, we should fight for a society where people are judged solely on their abilities and character, as opposed to arbitrary factors such as the color of their skin or the name on their sheepskin.


2 Responses

  1. Pete Daly
    Pete Daly

    This article makes two important points.

    1) The Ivy League and Ivy like system has become a caste system. I believe most of the current cabinet nominations by Obama come from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Some people from working class backgrounds like my son in law get in and get ahead via the system but a lot of people as smart as he is may not know at age 14 how to work the system. His father did not and got stuck in a job far below his abilities. The tilt is toward children in families who have already gotten through the system and know how to work it. And in full disclosure I have benefited greatly from it and so have my children, but my wife had to push much harder to get into medical school than I did because she went to a state university. Yet she is as technically smart or smarter than I am and clearly has far, far, more social skill than I will ever have. She should have gotten in a lot easier than I did, not the other way around.

    2) CLASS IS NOT JUST ABOUT MONEY. It’s more about a condescending attitude forming a pecking order than anything else.

    Everyone needs a sense of self esteem to be happy but unfortunately for too many people they push it too far. To feel good about themselves they have to from a pecking order and constantly make it obvious almost everyday. The pecking order and condescension can be based on money, the right clothes (this now extends all the way down to the fourth grade sadly), control in a work group associated with arrogance and condescension (at times someone has to be in charge, they just don’t have to be condescending about it), intellectual elitism, etc. — you name the category and someone will use it to form a condescending pecking order — a class system.

    My impression is the right has exploited this. I believe the condescension is just as bad on the right as on the left but it is hidden better. Fortunately, although he was hiding it, Mitt Romney got caught on videotape at a meeting of his “caste” that he thought was secret, making the 47 percent comment. Everyone on the right knew this was a problem immediately. They think that way they just don’t make it public.

    For some reason many (cetainly not all and not the majority) on the left feel some need to be intellectaully elitist — and to push it into peoples faces. They are more interested in having other intellectuals stroke their ego than making any real change. And people like Ronald Reagon and George Bush have exploited this to tremendous effect. They overgeneraleze and convince many people that everyone on the left is an intellectual snob.

    My obsevation is that more people are put off by intellectual classism than monetary classism. Maybe this is because they believe someday they could be rich but they were already classified in grammar or high school as smart or not smart. And that classifcation from childhood carries a lot of scars into adult life. I know people who dropped out of high school and started doing lawn work, built up a landscaping business, and have become multimillionaires. Everyone knows someone like this. It leads to the belief that “you may be rich but someday I may be just as rich”. But how many people who got classified as the C level student think someday they will be a great intellectual?

    So intellectual classim on the left is more toxic than financial classism on the right. And the right knows this. Nixon’s vice presdident Spiro Agnew referred to the left as “effite, impudent snobs.” Very shrewd and effective political move. It worked.

    You don’t have to totally disagree with someone and put them down to disagree with them. If someone says “Everyone on welfare is a cheat who has been made dependent on the system” you can start a conversation by saying, “There are some people cheating the system, there are some people who have been made overly dependent, but it is not the majority”. You show them a respect for their thinking process without putting them down or agreeing with them. You say you can understand how they reached that conclusion and there is some truth to it but it’s not the majority of people, its a small minority. You haven’t agreed with them, you have disagreed with the point that is is eveyone in the public assisance system. But if you come at them with the attitude that “I am intellectually superior to you, you are 100% completely wrong, you should just shut up and listen to your intellectual superior so you think the right way”, you aren’t goint to get any connection, convesation going, or change any hearts and minds. Maybe you will start another Cuba or Soviet Union but do you really want that? Dictatorships sugar coated with left wing intellectual slogans are still dictatorship. To me “left wing dictatorship” is a total contradiction in terms. They are left wing in name only. What they really wanted was power and control and that was a convenient idiology at that time to get them the power and control.

    There are real differences in talent among people. If my house every catches on fire I would want to know that when the fire trucks arrive that the most experienced and best person on the trucks is the one who takes charge. No time for consenus. Who’s the best based on ability. But you can be the best, be in charge, and not be condescending.

    So some people are better at carpentry or math, some people do have much more social skill, some people clearly are better communicators, masons, , artists, plumbers, etc. But if that is the case then just accept you lucked out in the genetic lottery, use your talent to make lives better for other people, but don’t be condescending and smug about it, don’t constantly emphasize it to form an unpleasant class or caste system or pecking order. People will greatly reward you with affection and true gratitude. That beats being smug all the time.

  2. CP

    Pete’s comment follows on Jay’s essay very well. The only element I could hope to expand is, hierarchal social systems, class and/or caste systems function on the social Darwinian nonsense that claims there is a genetic preference for this or that occupation or skill set. That’s really important to resist. One isn’t genetically superior because one’s occupation is primarily intellectual. I’d argue there is no genetic lottery or more fortunate or less fortunate skill sets outside of a hierarchal system. There are only skills and human beings who could function at an efficient and effective collective capacity if only they were part of a cooperative system rather than hierarchal nonsense that essentially depresses human achievement and progress. (Manfred Max-Neef has incredible research and thinking on this subject)

    The question becomes then, how to get unstuck and opt-out of the extant well-enculturated hierarchal system to forge and participate in a more effective and more human-friendly collective/cooperative system that includes everyone as equals, vital parts of a better whole? How does one who straddles the castes (or falls into a caste system’s cracks) grab hold of those “lower class” critics and bring them along to this third way of looking at things when we are both deeply cemented into a hierarchal system? We know the rules the “upper class” has set in stone for us. We’re practical because we have to be to survive. So how do we break out of the stone and mortar that bind us? There’s a human urge to claw one’s way through when we’re at or close to the bottom given a hierarchal system not of our choosing. People are very attached to that ethos.

    I don’t have an answer to any of those questions. When I talk to folks around me who have right-wing ideological imprints but share the knowledge that we’re being collectively screwed by the class caste b.s. I don’t get very far, even promoting a third way that we could be seeing and doing things. Disagreement to them very much means you aren’t “on their side.” The minute I start “talking fancy,” (and it really doesn’t take much for some people to hear “fancy”) it’s over. I’m no longer “us.” Worse right-wing “intellectuals” and libertarians come stocked with all manner of bizarre data and rational spin that sounds pretty good until you start to deconstruct it and ask third-way/progressive intellectual questions. Most people around my class position are too tired to bother asking questions or to deconstruct anything. We’re just trying to get by; if the populist narrative resonates, and it’s a much more accessible voice than the progressive narrative, they just go with it. The progressive narrative takes up valuable brain power that is needed for getting by and no wanting to end it all as we recognize the crass futility of our effort getting us utterly nowhere. I refuse to be like that even though I have to struggle to get by too, but I have very little success in persuading work-peers to do the same, no matter our empirically demonstrated shared experiences and common ground. Frankly as my income has just gone substantively down, yet again (fourth time in 18 months), I’m often not very inspired to bother trying to pull my peers along out of the right-wing muck. I’m spending my energy just trying to get to the firm edge of the quicksand in the hope to not get sucked any deeper into it.

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