Columnists > Voices

Bohemian rhapsody

A fashionable disdain for middle-class values animates liberalism

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

John Edwards claims that this country is made up of "two Americas," the rich and the poor, contending against each other. Conservatives criticize this quasi-Marxist rhetoric as "class warfare," but there is another kind of class warfare in this campaign.

First, the old stereotype of Republicans representing "the rich," with Democrats representing "the little guy," is no longer accurate. Evangelicals, ethnics, veterans, rural and small-town Americans-most of whom have moderate incomes-have been pouring into the Republican Party due largely to their concern for moral and cultural issues. Also, high-income people have been pouring into the Democratic Party, removing it culturally from its old blue-collar base.

A study of county-by-county election returns from the last presidential election by the Ipsos-Reid pollsters shows that in counties that went strongly for George W. Bush, only 7 percent of voters earned at least $100,000 annually, while 38 percent earned less than $30,000. In pro-Gore counties, 14 percent of the voters earned more than $100,000, with 29 percent earning less than $30,000.

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The "old money" of inherited wealth has been Democratic for decades (think of the Kennedys and the Kerrys), but now super-wealthy financiers (Warren Buffet, George Soros) and millionaires from the computer industry and Hollywood (two of the nation's biggest industries) are throwing their wealth and clout into the liberal cause. "It's not as if the Democrats have taken over the top of the socioeconomic ladder and the Republicans the bottom," says Karl Zinsmeister, writing on the phenomenon in The Wall Street Journal. "Rather, Democrats dominate at the very upper and lowest rungs, while Republicans find their following in the middle."

This pattern, he notes, is borne out not just in economics but in education. "At the bottom, school dropouts and unskilled workers are heavily Democratic, but so are grad students and professors on the other end of the educational spectrum. (College faculty groups are the very top financial contributors to John Kerry, according to Federal Election Commission data.) Meanwhile, high-school graduates and individuals with bachelor's degrees (the middle) are predominantly Republican."

Historically, the upper crust and the proletariat have had one thing in common: a despising of the middle class. Marxists hated the "bourgeoisie," to the point of attempting to wipe them out by murder, confiscation, and prison camps. But despising "bourgeois" values has a long history, with both aristocrats and peasants mocking their preoccupation with work, religion, virtue, and respectability. Artists, in particular, have cultivated the "bohemian" pose, in which they consider themselves creative, nonconforming individualists who exist on a higher plane and live by different rules than the boring, moralistic middle class.

And yet, America is largely middle-class, and the parties are still evenly balanced. Why don't Republicans have the middle class sewn up? Certainly, some Democrats, including some Christians, are proudly middle-class and liberal by conviction. But disdain for bourgeois values can be found even among members of the middle class, because according to contemporary sociologists, social class is no longer based solely on wealth.

According to "New Class theory," professions that deal largely with information-the media (journalists, entertainers), education (professors, teachers), the helping professions (lawyers, counselors, social workers, mainline clergy), information technologists (computer programmers, software engineers)-tend to be liberal politically. Those whose professions are grounded in solid reality (manufacturing, farming, small businesses) tend to be conservative. The New Class liberals tend to be affluent, at least middle-class economically, and yet they tend to despise "middle-class" values.

Another factor is what David Brooks documents in his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. By "bobos," he means the "bohemian bourgeois." The '60s counterculture brought bohemian values-nonconformity, a self-conscious concern for coolness, looking down on what is merely normal-into the mainstream. The children of the '60s despise "middle-class" values, even though they are middle-class. They scorn the "establishment," even though they have become the establishment.

For some, the stereotype of middle-class normality-marriage, two kids, a dog, a house in the suburbs, a station wagon-is their dream. For others, being accused of having these things, even when they do, is an insult.

This is why liberals not only hate President Bush, the standard-bearer for the bourgeoisie, they insult him as being stupid. They not only disagree with conservatives, they look down on them. They resist Christianity not so much because they think it is untrue, but because they think it is uncool.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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