What’s the Matter with Liberals?


For more than thirty-five years, American politics has followed a populist pattern as predictable as a Punch and Judy show and as conducive to enlightened statesmanship as the cycles of a noisy washing machine. The antagonists of this familiar melodrama are instantly recognizable: the average American, humble, long-suffering, working hard, and paying his taxes; and the liberal elite, the know-it-alls of Manhattan and Malibu, sipping their lattes as they lord it over the peasantry with their fancy college degrees and their friends in the judiciary.

Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics—trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden, expressing worshipful awe for the microchip, etc. But define politics as culture, and class instantly becomes for them the very blood and bone of public discourse. Indeed, from George Wallace to George W. Bush, a class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism has been one of their most powerful weapons. Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions. It understands itself as an uprising of the little people even when its leaders, in control of all three branches of government, cut taxes on stock dividends and turn the screws on the bankrupt. It mobilizes angry voters by the millions, despite the patent unwinnability of many of its crusades. And from the busing riots of the Seventies to the culture wars of our own time, the backlash has been ignored, downplayed, or misunderstood by liberals.

The 2004 presidential campaign provides a near-perfect demonstration of the persistent power of backlash—as well as another disheartening example of liberalism’s continuing inability to confront it in an effective manner. So perfect, in fact, that it deserves to be studied by political enthusiasts for decades to come, in the manner that West Point cadets study remarkable infantry exploits and MBAs study branding campaigns that conjured up billions out of nothing but a catchy jingle.

With his aristocratic manner and his much-remarked personal fortune, the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, made an almost perfect villain for the backlash pantomime. Indeed, he had been one of its targets since his earliest days in politics. In the 1972 proto-backlash manifesto, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, Michael Novak interpreted that year’s TV showdown between Kerry and his fellow naval officer John O’Neill as a skirmish in this then-novel form of inverted class war. While the two men seemed to be debating issues related to the Vietnam War, and while Kerry was on the left and thus, theoretically at least, an ally of working people, Novak believed he saw the brutal social truth beneath it all:

Comparison was immediately drawn between Kerry’s Yale pedigree, good looks, smooth speech, powerful connections, and the limited resources, plainness of manner, ordinariness of O’Neill. Class resentment was tangible.1

Class resentment was more than just “tangible” in 1972 when Kerry ran for Congress in the area around the crumbling Massachusetts industrial cities of Lowell and…

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