Liberals Have a Problem with Elitism: it’s not necessary

Liberals have a problem with elitism in the words and actions of some vocal, well-meaning people.  They undermine programs that otherwise have broad appeal among a large majority of Americans.  Some decades ago they were called Limousine Liberals: wealthy do gooders who had it easy in life.  They were mocked for the way they swooped down to do good things for pathetic unfortunates, then soared back to their estates where they held balls celebrating their good works.  Cartoonish, I know, but not without reason.  It didn’t go unnoticed by the recipients of their largesse that their benefactors looked down on them, with pity, that the unwashed needy were not as good, nor as capable, and would never amount to much unless helped by their betters. 

Curiously, wealthy benefactors who celebrate themselves for their generosity are seldom liberals.  I’m reminded of one whom I knew well.  He underwrote an education program to place gifted ESL students in colleges of his choice.   To qualify, students had to agree to speak only English, except in the privacy of their homes, take his prescribed classes, and learn his definition of Americanism.  Racist to the core, he was determined to fashion a new generation of potential leaders from south of the border into his right thinking conservative white ‘man’s’ ways.  He was a one man version of what the nation had for a century tried to do to young American Indians through the infamous Indian Schools.  He knew that, believed the schools were on target, and we gave up on them too soon. 

It may be an extreme example, but it represents a historical mindset that has ebbed and flowed throughout American history from its earliest colonial times.  Moreover, wealth and limousines are not required for some version of the mindset to be exhibited.  Too many liberals are unable or unwilling to identify with, be among, and recognize the equality of those whom their agendas are intended to benefit.  Even recognizing equality is problematic when the measure of equality is dictated by those who assume their values are the standard to which others should aspire.  Some of my liberal friends mean well in every way, but it comes off as if they think those whom they would defend or benefit can’t do it for themselves.  I confess I sometimes fall into that trap.  It’s so easy to do.  As a pastor, I’m reminded that Jesus lived among those he came to heal as one of them.  He ate and drank with persons in all walks of life, as one who truly knew, loved, and called them friends.  Yes, he also called them to new and better way of life, but without a trace of the superiority that he alone had a right to claim.  

When I was in high school (a long time ago), our social studies teacher, Mr. Hobson, had creative ways to teach about government.  He organized our class as a legislative body, with students self selected as conservatives on one side of the room facing liberals on the other side, with independents forming a bridge at one end.  Students came from a broad range of economic classes with a plurality from lower middle income families.  The liberal students laid out an agenda to dedicate more resources for the poorest and least capable in the community.  They meant well, but conservative students objected that the poorest were not, therefore, less capable, and should be left alone to make it on their own.  Both were right.  More resources were needed.  It’s all but impossible to make it on your own without resources.  But it’s arrogant and wrong to assert the poor are less capable than others.  That’s a lot of wisdom shown by a bunch of young teenagers, none of whom lived on estates or rode in limousines.  It’s a lesson I’ve been pondering for over sixty years. 

Today’s liberal agenda, about which few liberals can agree, recognizes that government is the necessary tool for creating conditions in which the nation can prosper.  It starts with devoting adequate resources needed by the lowest economic strata to raise their incomes and open doors to greater mobility.  It advocates creation and maintenance of the complex infrastructure that enables our technologically advanced society to function: assuring that its parts operate safely, without discrimination, and with concern for the future of the environment.  Health, education, housing, transportation, and civil rights are critical elements of its domestic side.  Mutually beneficial relationships with other nations, and a global policy defending and promoting liberal ideals are pillars of its foreign side.  It is less concerned with defense of American territory, and more concerned with defense of American intellectual property and cyber security.  It is the antithesis of right wing howling about radical socialism and Marxist ideology, but making that clear may be a lost cause.    

It will succeed or fail depending on how well liberals can avoid the trap of perceived elitism that right wingers are eager to turn against them.  The final irony being that right wing leadership has no sympathy with ordinary people, and believe themselves to be best suited to rule without the messy processes of democracy.   

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