Populist Attacks on Elites Are a Dead End

A movement based on anger is producing a war of all against all. The outcome won't be good.

The pitchforks say it all.

Photographer: Alexander Khudoteply/afp/getty images

If there’s one thing people on both sides of the U.S.’s political divide seem to agree on, it’s that the country’s masses are suffering at the hands of elites. For example, in a recent column in the Week, Damon Linker warns that the “global elite” are about to suffer their comeuppance:

Elites live in or near urban centers that are booming with jobs in tech, finance, media, and other fields that draw on the expertise they acquired in their educations at the greatest universities in the world…The problem is that growing numbers of people…see…a system that is fundamentally unjust, rigged, and shot through with corruption and self-dealing.

Meanwhile, Thomas Frank writing in the Guardian takes U.S. Democrats to task for having a “Davos ideology” that has “done material harm to millions of their former constituents.”

I find this populist critique dissatisfying in a number of ways. First, though there is evidence that globalization harmed workers in developed countries, it’s an open question as to how big of an issue it was -- things, such as technology, monopoly power, financialization or other factors might have been more important. That means that even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not clear which policies elites could have enacted to save the American and European working classes from their current plight.

But a bigger problem with the populist thesis is that I don’t think we even know quite who the “elites” are. The rage and frustration of the working class, and the dark warnings of writers like Linker and Frank who seek to channel that rage, can’t seem to fix on a target.

Who are the so-called elite? If you’re a Bernie Sanders fan, the villains are the super-rich -- a “tiny handful of individuals” who control the world’s wealth. Not even the top 1 percent, but the top 0.01 percent -- a rarefied collection of corporate executives, private-equity managers and other titans of financial capitalism. If you’re a working-class Trump supporter, though, the elite you despise might be the urban educated class -- latte-sipping secular college graduates working in tech, finance or law who enjoy "Hamilton" and "The Daily Show." Others have an even narrower conception of the elite -- politicians, the news media or academics.

Some very enthusiastic populists might answer “all of the above” -- to say that anyone who’s not working class is the elite and is therefore the problem. But attacking everyone in society who isn’t working class carries great dangers, as historical examples such as China’s Cultural Revolution and various other communist uprisings demonstrate. In practice, most populists recognize the destructiveness of their approach, and focus their ire on some subset of the rich, educated or privileged. So why does everyone seem to pick a different villain?

It’s very likely that everyone has a different conception of who counts among the elite. Researchers studying inequality have found lots of evidence that people compare themselves to a reference group of people. That could be people with roughly similar incomes, occupations or lifestyles, people of the same age or people who live down the street. That implies that when people are resentful of others, they probably resent those close to them on the income or social status scale.

To people in the lower-middle class, the elite may be the upper-middle-class people who were once their equals. Struggling service-industry workers and unemployed factory workers can’t help but look at the urban educated classes for whom the old American dream of economic security and upward mobility is still a reality, as knowledge-based industries rake it in amid the same forces of globalization and technology that gutted industrial America. To those who lost the comfortable middle-class dream, those who still have it must seem like a self-satisfied elite, and the hallmarks of their emerging culture -- secularism, urban consumerism and political liberalism -- provide convenient targets for anger.

Meanwhile, to those upper-middle-class educated folks, the true elite are the super-rich. If you work 70-hour weeks writing code or poring over legal briefs for $150,000 a year, a private-equity baron or hedge-fund manager earning $15 million a year and hobnobs with politicians at expensive fundraisers probably looks like a smug, dominant elite.

And to many among the poor, especially poor minorities, even the working class must seem like elites -- beneficiaries of white privilege, excessive attention and concern from politicians or other unearned benefits.

Money isn’t everything, of course, and people may also resent elites who appear to have some kind of special status or privilege. There’s lots of evidence that people dislike unfairness. Those without job security may resent tenured academics, while private-sector researchers might envy the special intellectual respect afforded to their ivory-tower counterparts. Anyone with political opinions might resent members of the media, whose ideas and views get extra attention. Those who lost their houses in the meltdown of 2008 probably resent the bankers who contributed to the crash and then walked off with multimillion-dollar paydays. And of course everyone resents politicians, who have disproportionate power to reshape the law of the land.

It’s not this simple, of course. Plenty of working-class people probably resent the super-rich as well. I’m just illustrating how a deeply unequal society with falling mobility and stagnating productivity can lead to a free-for-all where everyone picks their own villain. The problem with populism isn’t that its anger is unjustified -- lots of people are really hurting, and the economic and political systems really are deeply unfair in many ways. It’s that the anger is aimed in all directions in a confused jumble of blame and resentment.

That kind of confused war of all against all is unlikely to yield good results. Instead of an anger-based populism that focuses its energy on attacking some group of elites, what the country needs is a reformist populist movement that focuses on changing the system itself. Instead of thinking about who to blame, Americans should be thinking about how to make things better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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