Telegraph, 7 November 2012
Many observers, especially Obama-cheering observers here in the UK, will look upon Obama’s victory as a win for the little man over the big corporate interests that lined up behind Mitt Romney. Romney, we were frequently told, represents “the 1 per cent”, the implication being that Obama speaks for “the 99 per cent”, for Joe Average. Where the modern Republican Party has become beholden to business and religious elites, reliant on them for funding and moral backing, the Democrats under Obama are more of a mass party, we’re told, bringing not only the working classes but also the young and black people into the political sphere.
In truth, as articulated in a most interesting pre-election article by Joel Kotkin at the Daily Beast, in recent years the Democratic Party has become as much an elitist machine as GOP has. Yes, says Kotkin, it is true that a “plutocratic corporate class” got behind Romney, but Obama was also backed financially and morally by an elitist stratum in modern America – by what Kotkin describes as “the leaders of social and traditional media, the upper bureaucracy, and the academy”.
So Obama’s main source of funding was not donations from millions of Joe Averages but handouts from “the tech sector, government and the academy” – his top five funders were “the University of California, Microsoft, Google, the US government, and Harvard”. Executives at Craigslist, Facebook and Google gave maximum donations to Obama’s campaign. As Kotkin points out, these people make their fortunes “not through tangible goods but instead by manipulating and packaging information”, and so they are “generally not interested in the mundane economy of carbon-based energy, large-scale agriculture, housing, and manufacturing”. As such, he says, unlike much of the masses who make a living getting their hands dirty in carbon-based industries, these extravagantly wealthy elitists can “afford to be green and progressive, since they rarely deal with physical infrastructure or unions or the challenges of training lower-skilled workers”.
Kotkin points out that the fact that this business elite is “post-industrial” means it has come in for very little criticism from the kind of people who attack Romney for getting into bed with businessmen. This “post-industrial elite” has been shielded from “the harsh criticism meted out to Wall Street grandees and energy executives by green activists, urban aesthetes, and progressive media outlets”, he says. Where fabulously rich people who made their money through building big, infrastructural stuff are attacked by radicals as the “destroyers of the Earth”, someone like Steve Jobs, another friend of the Obama camp before his death last year, was “celebrated at Occupy Wall Street as a cultural icon worthy of veneration”. So despite both Romney and Obama being primarily financed by what Kotkin describes as “ruthless businessmen”, it is only Romney who gets flak for accepting such cash.
Not only are the modern Democrats increasingly funded by business elites – they have also surrounded themselves with a new moral elite, or what Kotkin describes as a “New Clerisy”, which is easily as dogmatic and judgemental as the right-leaning Christian groupies that surround Romney. The word clerisy was coined by the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1830s, to describe “an enlightened educated class, made up of the Anglican church along with intellectuals, artists and educators, which would school the rest of society on values and standards”. And so it is with the new behaviour-condemning, values-spreading collective of public intellectuals, environmentalists, scientists and social policy analysts that now flank the Obama group.
As Kotkin points out, this New Clerisy may not be religious, as Romney’s moral cheerleaders tend to be; in fact many of them are led by science rather than by the Bible. But they nonetheless have “shared dogmas”, including “strongly secular views on social issues, fervent environmentalism, an embrace of the anti-suburban ‘smart growth’ agenda, and the ideal of racial redress, of which Obama remains perhaps the most evident symbol”. Where Romney-loving religious types are given to hectoring the masses for committing sin, the Obama-supporting New Clerisy chastises the plebs for being fat, un-green, unenlightened about gay marriage, and so on. These “secular liberals” have been most successful in promoting a severe and snobbish environmentalist ethos, says Kotkin, through which they advocate “limited consumption by the lower orders” – that is, they rehabilitate, in secular lingo, the sin of gluttony, and reprimand all those who commit it.
Although this New Clerisy uses populist rhetoric, talking about the desires of the working man and the needs of youth and blacks, it is fundamentally oligarchical, says Kotkin. It believes that “power should rest not with the will of the common man or that of the plutocrats [who support Romney], but with credentialed ‘experts’”. And so this expert class – brainier than Joe Average, more eco-enlightened due to its being cushioned from big, grubby industry, and more “aware” on issues such as gay marriage and racial equality – lords it over the ill-informed oiks who make up mass and especially Middle America. They really do see it as their role, in Coleridge’s old words, to “school the rest of society on values and standards”. Yesterday’s result was certainly a historic one, because it represented the further consolidation of this New Clerisy and its orthodoxies. That Obama’s influential supporters in the media fail to recognise the increasingly cut-off nature of the Obama camp is not surprising – members of an elite never believe that they are members of an elite.
Read more of my articles for the Telegraph and other publications here.