Liberal elite is a political stigma used to describe politically left-leaning people, whose education had traditionally opened the doors to affluence. It is commonly used with the pejorative implication that the people who claim to support the rights of the working class are themselves members of the upper class, or upper middle class, and are therefore out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to support and protect. The phrase "liberal elite" should not be confused with the term "elite" as used by writers such as Vilfredo Pareto and C. Wright Mills. They use the term to mean those who exercise the most political power.
The label is essentially a rhetorical device with flexible meaning depending on where in the English speaking world it is used. As a polemical term it has been used to refer to political positions as diverse as secularism, environmentalism, feminism, and other positions associated with the left.
The originating usage in the United States is applied with various changes to other English speaking countries and by extension to left-leaning elites in other countries. However, the term "liberal" does not have the same political connotation in all English speaking countries. In Australia it has the opposite connotation to that which it enjoys in the US. It is associated with the Liberal Party, a conservative and powerful party whose name is based on their objective to liberalise the market economy within Australia. In the UK, the Liberal Democratic Party occupies the political center between the rightist Conservative and the leftist Labour parties.
United States usage
In the United States, the lifestyle of the liberal elite is often considered noteworthy. The term "liberal elite" often carries the implicit connotation that the individuals described by the term are hypocritical. For instance, they may support busing and oppose school choice and vouchers, but send their children to private, parochial or racially homogeneous wealthy public schools. The liberal elite are often characterized as having an affinity for European culture, especially the culture of France and foreign films. Thus the phrase liberal elite suggests that liberals are unpatriotic, because they like other cultures and are disdainful of American life and culture. Columnist 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 use the stereotypes attributed to the liberal elite 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 portray San Francisco liberals as haughty and condescending towards people less progressive than themselves and poking fun at the large number of wine and cheese stores in San Francisco. The film Team America: World Police includes jokes about the liberal elite, implying that they live in their own protected niche and are thus unaware of the dangers of internationalism. The film lampooned several Hollywood celebrities, including Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler etc. for their left-wing political views. Michael Moore, who is famous for having left-wing viewpoints whilst making large amounts of money from his books and films, is also lampooned in the film.
During the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, Republican candidate John McCain likened Democratic candidate Barack Obama's celebrity appeal to that of pop star Britney Spears and socialite Paris Hilton.
A political ad from the right wing organization Club for Growth attacked the Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean by portraying him as part 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."
Those Americans who equate intellectual pursuits and careers with elitism often point out American intellectuals, most of whom are upper middle class not upper class, are primarily liberal. Fully 72% of professors identify themselves as liberals. At Ivy League Universities, an even larger majority, 87% of professors identified themselves as liberals. Those with post-graduate degrees are increasingly Democratic.
In Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? the idea of a liberal elite is compared to George Orwell's character Emmanuel Goldstein in the 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.
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- Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas?, Holt, Henry & Company, ISBN 978-0-8050-7774-2
- 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.
- The Economist, The Fear Myth http://www.economist.com/world/na/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3400772
- Joshua Kurlantzick, The New Yorker (2004) "Pardon?" http://www.newyorker.com/talk/content/articles/040419ta_talk_kurlantzick?040419ta_talk_kurlantzick