The worm turns in American politics faster than you can say “the audacity of hope.” It was only a matter of time before the 1 percent, who possess 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, rebelled—in the name of the other 99 percent.
Or rather, the sons and daughters of the 1 percent. One of the first things you learn at a glorified finishing school like Harvard is to leap to the front of the most cutting-edge trends in art, fashion, and politics, and nothing right now is more cutting-edge politically than siding with Occupy Wall Street. Sure enough, here come the ambitious children of America’s wealthiest people, camping out in Harvard Yard. Cool tents! Not to be outdone, Yale students are roughing it on the New Haven green. Love those portable ceramic Vornado heaters!
No telling what these bold protests will lead to. More electives in post-feminist, pre-capitalist, hegemonic, Third World revolution. Longer master’s teas. More squash courts at the Harvard Club. A little agitation goes a long way. You drove Larry Summers out of Cambridge and back to Washington, didn’t you?
Pardon my skepticism. I’m sure that among the sharpies and the hustlers, there are kids up there in Cambridge and New Haven who really are angry that the American class system has doomed them to be the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country after graduation. So here is some advice, addressed directly to those wretched of the quad, on how they can be really effective. You want to make a real revolution? Those of you—probably the majority of you—who hail from elite liberal homes, wait until the dessert plates have been cleared from the Thanksgiving table next week. And then tell your family this:
Folks, what the hell happened?
Almost three years to the day after your man won the White House and your party swept both houses of Congress, you are on the defensive and under siege. More than a few liberal pundits are busy explaining how Romney will win the presidency. Across the country, people have erupted against your policies. They are shooting at the White House! Your values and ideas are everywhere treated with hatred and contempt. What was meant to be the final ascension of the liberal program was actually the Fort Sumter-like beginning of a sustained, successful assault on your very existence.
And the truth is, Mom and Dad, we no longer have two political parties. We have one party, the Democrats, divided into a right wing and a left wing. And we have a party, the Republicans, that has dissipated into a movement, a collection of intense emotions that have no outlet in a clear political program. When the head of a household of four, who is earning $60,000 a year, cannot be convinced that people making several million dollars a year should pay more money in taxes so that he can afford health care for himself and his family, common sense seems to have disappeared down the rabbit hole. Why is it so hard to convince this man, who is decent, rational, and responsible in other aspects of his life, that his politics are incoherent?
Here’s why, and pour yourselves some more wine. Liberal elites like you are strangling liberalism.
Republicans tell him that life in America is winner-take-all, and that they are the people who will let him keep what he has.
The man making $60,000 a year who can’t afford health benefits for his family looks at you, the liberal elite—sorry, guys, but let’s call a spade a spade—and sees that the fix is always in. You went to the same private schools. You graduated from the same handful of Ivy League universities. You live in the same exclusive urban neighborhoods, and you summer in the same exclusive enclaves. Your children—like us—network through your pre-established connections to the top of society. You prescribe conduct for others that you will never have to follow yourselves. You pass laws that will never apply to you. You turn on your own constituents, like public-school teachers, at the drop of a hat. You sell out the middle class by passing legislation that makes it almost impossible to declare bankruptcy. You make the middle class pay with soaring premiums for expanded Medicaid programs that will bankrupt state treasuries, thus fueling the backlash against the push for universal health care.
The man you think is a “sucker” because he votes for Republican candidates who don’t seem to give a hoot about him will vote for them every time. He looks at you, the crowd of The-Fix-Is-Always-In, and he casts his lot with the crowd of wealth and initiative.
You see, Mom and Dad, they don’t lie about his prospects. They tell him that he has to sink or swim. They don’t disrespect his willpower by promising that government will make life easier for him. They tell him that they respect his individuality. They tell him straight out what you, the liberal elite, know to be true but will never say. They tell him that life in America is winner-take-all, and that they are the people who will let him keep what he has. They tell him that his religion, his wife’s capacity to reproduce, his children—whether they are “successful” or not—are his treasure. They tell him that they don’t care if he is a person of modest ambition, little sophistication, and humble means. What they value is his capacity to change his own life.
What you tell him is that he should put his life in your hands. Yet you scorn his religion. You mock his faith in the sacredness of conception. You deride his belief in family. You tell him that his love for hunting makes him a murderer, and that his terror at being economically displaced makes him a xenophobe and a racist. Then you emasculate his hope for the future by telling him that if his ship comes in—that dream of a ship that makes the grinding disappointment of daily life worth living through—you’ll help yourself to a big slice of it. And you expect him to believe your rhetoric about fairness and equality when, all the while, you are accusing him of gullibility in his politics and bad faith toward the least fortunate of his fellow citizens. When, all the while, you are living untouched by your own policies. When you are cushioned against life’s hardness, not by government, but by simply knowing other people in your class. You expect him to buy your talk about equitable distribution of wealth when you are sailing through tax loopholes off into the sunset. For this man, his emotions make all the rational sense in the world.
Whew! Sorry for the speech. But before we go back to school next week, we want to clean up our own house. Truth and justice begin at home.
One more thing: Do you mind sparing the Porsche for the ride back? The train is too slow and the Democratic Socialist Club at UMass is serving us breakfast early tomorrow morning.
Lee Siegel is the author of Harvard Is Burning, which has just been published as an Amazon Kindle Single, and from which this essay was adapted.