From the ‘liberal elite’ to Mitt Romney: changing conceptions of ‘the elite’ in the United States of America

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In 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry faced a maelstrom of negative campaigning, smears and attack ads. One of the main charges against Kerry was that he was a smug and detached member of the ‘liberal elite’. Indeed the Republican-supporting group Citizens United released an advert denouncing him as “another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he’s a man of the people.” [1] In 2012, another wealthy member of the Massachusetts elite is running for President. Mitt Romney, the Republican Presidential nominee, has suffered repeated political assault over the extent of his wealth and the differences between his own life and the lives of ordinary Americans. As Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said, “not everyone has been as fortunate as Mitt Romney. You cannot base your whole approach on a life experience as rarefied as his.” [2] In both cases Kerry and Romney have been painted as members of ‘the elite’. The different ways these men’s images have been tarnished illustrates changing attitudes in America. Whereas Kerry, and Michael Dukakis before him, were demonised for their ‘liberal’ views on social issues, Romney is unpopular primarily because he is a member of an economic elite. These changing conceptions of ‘the elite’ point to evolving attitudes towards money and culture in American society.

For a long time, Republican strategists have had a textbook formula for attacking Democrats with liberal views on issues like abortion, the death penalty and taxation: in the minds of the electorate, force the candidate into the box marked ‘liberal elite’. This happened prominently during the 1988 Presidential Election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The latter’s views on foreign policy were described as “born in Harvard Yard’s boutique” and his views on crime as “standard old-style 60s liberalism” by Bush. [3] Dukakis’ policies on crime were presented as stridently, eerily distant from the views of most Americans. There is a moment in one of the Presidential debates between the two men when Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife. He answered, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” [4] Many Americans Dukakis’s response and thought he was inordinately detached in his answer to such an emotive question. It reinforced the perception that he was a member of an elite that didn’t understand the feelings and values of ordinary Americans.

Dukakis’ opponents presented his policies as if they had been dreamed up in the ivory towers of elite universities. The Republicans were so successful in destroying Dukakis and the idea of the ‘liberal elite’ that Dukakis is now universally recognised as the prime example of a politician viewed as strikingly out of touch with ordinary people. [5]

John Kerry, who continued the Democratic tradition of putting forward ‘Massachusetts liberals’ as their party’s Presidential nominee, also faced similar treatment at the hands of his opponents. Kerry had the unfortunate combination of having a net worth of $240 million, being enthusiastic about wind surfing and the propensity to speak French. Kerry’s own characteristics lent themselves to him seeming out of touch and his relatively liberal policy positions – at least compared to George W Bush – contributed to this overall image of him being part of the ‘liberal elite’.

The ‘liberal elite’ concept, with its connotations of higher education and liberal views, suggests the particular group believes it knows better than the majority of Americans. The recurring and politically powerful vision is of a group that opposes the values and common sense of the American people. Damon Linker argues that George W Bush’s persona, brilliantly constructed, was the opposite of that of the liberal elite. As Linker writes of Bush:

“his economically libertarian and socially conservative policies to his swaggering gait, mannered Southern drawl, and studied inarticulateness – was intended to convey the message that he was “one of us,” an average American bringing his hard-won common sense to bear on the most challenging problems of our time, many if not all of which could be traced to the influence of the godless liberal elites who “really” run the country from their decadent enclaves in New York and Hollywood.” [6]

Thus Kerry, and Dukakis, and countless other Democrats, have been placed into a frame which presents them – socially and culturally – as distant and dangerous to the American people.

Interestingly and uniquely in this 2012 Presidential election is that the term ‘elite’ has been used in reference to the Republican candidate. It is Mitt Romney who is battling the toxic description of being a member of the elite. In this election it is his sheer wealth and how he created his wealth that defines this conception of the ‘elite’. Instead of views on the death penalty or abortion or length of time spent studying in academia, it is the size of income, amount of tax paid and way the money was made which defines this elite.

Romney made millions in private equity firm Bain Capital, which was involved in various corporate takeovers and ensuing job losses. Not only are there the dubious corporate tactics, but it escapes tax through the Cayman Islands. Furthermore Romney had a privileged upbringing because his father was a millionaire and a Governor of Michigan. He cannot lay claim to being a self-made man and so cannot join the ranks of the Gates and Buffetts of the world. He has also repeatedly harmed his own image. He has talked about owning two Cadillac’s and challenged one of his Republican primary opponents to a $10 000 bet. As Gary Younge writes, “His opponents have successfully framed him as an out-of-touch magnate with a tin ear for the travails of the common person.” [7] It may be added that he hasn’t helped himself in escaping this frame.

The reason for the changing conception of ‘the elite’ is because this is an election on the economy and not on social issues. American capitalism and attitudes towards the richest have suffered confidence shocks in the wake of the financial collapse. Romney, Bain and trickle down economics are viewed suspiciously and the question on the minds of the electorate is whether Romney is a representative of the elite that helped crash the economy in the first place. Although elections will nearly always be about whether an economy is working and how many jobs it is creating, this election is special because people are asking the further question of whether the economy is fair. In December, Republican pollster Frank Luntz explained how “The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of ‘Wall Street’, we’ve got a problem.” [8] Luntz captures the problem that Romney faces. At the moment people are not so interested in gay marriage or the fact that someone studied at Harvard. Instead, like never before, the bogeymen are the bankers and businessman who brought Wall Street, Main Street and the world to its knees.

The vision of a group of East Coast liberal intellectuals running and ruining the country has always been false. Now people are waking up to the threat of the true ‘masters of the universe’. It has suited the richest for a very long time that the ‘liberal elite’ took the brunt of people’s worries about a clique running the USA. Now people are realising that it is not your college education or propensity for wind surfing that makes you a danger to the United States, but it is how you have come to be rich and whether this has been achieved in an ethical way.

Article by Ben Mackay.

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[8] Ibid.