Liberal elite

Liberal elite

In the United States the term liberal elite is used to describe affluent, politically left-leaning people. It is commonly used with the pejorative implication that members of the liberal elite adopt lifestyles and opinions out of step with the leftist views that they advocate. In other English speaking societies, where the term "liberal" has a different meaning, the terms "elite" or "elitist" may be used (sometimes in formations such as "left-wing elite" or "progressive elite") with similar implications. The term "elite" is derived from writers such as Vilfredo Pareto and C. Wright Mills, who used this term to refer to the group within formally democratic societies that exercises most political power.

The term elite, which literally means 'the richest, most powerful group in society', was first applied exclusively to the political left by in 'The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of democracy'. The concept of 'liberal elites' is a product of '' discourse, which emerged in the United States in the 1970s. Like the 'new class', liberal elites are often understood to be university/college educated professionals, often considered to wield immense cultural power in the media, academy, and school system. They use this cultural power to influence politics beyond their numerical significance, advocating fringe interests to the detriment of 'mainstream' opinion. Their political arguments are allegedly self-serving and frivolous, aimed at restricting public choice.

However, the term is essentially a rhetorical device with infinitely flexible meaning. In various contexts, it refers to political positions as diverse as secularism, environmentalism, feminism, or even advocacy of representative democracy.

United States

In the United States, the term is applied to affluent, politically left-leaning people who often reside in the Northeast (especially New England, New York City and the rest of the BosWash area) and West Coast (especially the San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles areas) regions, and often hold advanced college degrees.

It is considered a political disadvantage for a campaigning American politician to be associated in the minds of the electorate with the "liberal elite" because they would then seem to be not only out of step with mainstream opinion, but also privileged, and therefore unfamiliar with the concerns of the typical American voter. The liberal elite are often stereotyped as being snooty and condescending toward others, particularly those living in Middle America. Thus it is often used by many politicians to apply to their left-leaning opponents if they also live an affluent or upscale lifestyle.

In the United States, the lifestyle of the liberal elite is often considered noteworthy. The liberal elite are often characterized as having an affinity for coffeehouses and European cultures, especially the culture of France. French cheeses and wines, expensive coffee, and foreign films are often associated with the liberal elite. This association can be applied to suggest that someone is unpatriotic, and disdainful of American life and culture. Journalist Dave Barry drew attention to these stereotypes when he commented, "Do we truly believe that ALL red-state residents are ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR- obsessed cousin-marrying roadkill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks; or that ALL blue-state residents are godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts?" South Park's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone used the stereotypes attributed to the liberal élite for comic effect. In the episode Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls, they portrayed members of Hollywood's movie industry as being hypocritical and self-serving and having an affinity for tofu, steamed celery, couscous and the products of organic markets. In the episode Smug Alert, they also expressed their disdain of the haughty condescension that San Francisco liberals have towards people they regard as less progressive than themselves, poking fun at the large number of wine and cheese stores in San Francisco on one occasion.

A political ad from the supply-side organization Club for Growth which attacked the Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean summed up many of the stereotypes of the liberal elite: "Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.

Among members of the country's intellectual elite, most of whom are members of the professional class not upper class, liberalism remains the most prominent ideology. The vast majority of professors, 72% identify themselves as liberals. At Ivy League Universities, an even larger majority of 87% of professors identified themselves as liberals. Additionally those with some post graduate study were more likely to vote Democratic in the 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2006 elections.

In Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? the idea of a liberal elite is suggested to be similar to the character of Emmanuel Goldstein in the George Orwell book Nineteen-Eighty Four, the fictional hated enemy of the people. Frank argues that anger directed towards this perceived enemy is what keeps the conservative coalition together.

United Kingdom

In the UK, elitism has traditionally been associated with the aristocracy, rather than well-off supporters of social change. However, the term is used similarly to American use in reference to people, often residents of northern suburbs of London such as Hampstead (childhood home of Sacha Baron-Cohen) or Islington, and recently south Manchester areas such as Didsbury, who may be involved in the media or the liberal professions, for example teaching and social work. A newspaper that is often associated with such groupings is The Guardian. They are perceived to exert political influence out of proportion to wider popular support for their opinions. Certain organizations are sometimes accused of being under the influence of a liberal elite - hence terms such as "BBC-Guardian axis". One example of claims of liberal elitism is the myth that Labour frontbencher Peter Mandelson saw mushy peas in a fish and chip shop and asked the proprietor about the "guacamole dip", or in one version of the story "avocado mousse", implying a gulf between his perspective and that of his working-class constituents.


In Australia, the term "chardonnay socialist" has been in use since 1989. For example, Australian left-wing "true believers" leveled it at supporters of the failed republic referendum of 1999 (where the vote was split not along conventional party lines but very much along socio-economic divides, with the rich overwhelmingly supporting the change while the less well-off were opposed – a superficially bizarre pattern for a non-economic issue). Staunch Australian right-wingers, on the other hand, level it at those who support such things as government funding for the arts, free tertiary education, and the ABC – all causes which are described by critics as "middle-class welfare".

The ad hominem argument was particularly used by the Howard Government against members of the Australian Labor Party.

See also


  • The Economist, The Fear Myth
  • Larry M. Bartels (2006), "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?", Quarterly Journal of Political Science: Vol. 1:No. 2, pp 201-226.
  • Joshua Kurlantzick, The New Yorker (2004) "Pardon?"

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