Power to the People—Again


Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality, by Jeffrey Bell, Washington, D.C: Regnery Gateway, 193 pages, $21.95

Jeff Bell is probably dying to write the sequel to this book.

Within days of its official release in May, our jaunty vice president launched l'affaire Murphy Brown and his attack on Hollywood and media "elites." And Bell's book is a virtual subtext to the Ross Perot phenomenon—the rise of which Bell anticipates in one passage. If being able to say "I told you so" is truly among life's most sublime pleasures, Bell should be sporting a big grin right now.

Abstracted from these fortuitous events, however, this is an odd book. It is reminiscent of John Adams's observation that the Declaration of Independence "contains nothing that wasn't hackneyed two years before" in the Continental Congress. Populism and Elitism advances the usual take on liberal elitism, "values" politics, the 1960s, and the causes of the constipated Republican realignment. Bell even includes a retail version of Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis.

Political sophisticates would be hasty, however, to dismiss Populism and Elitism for being either obvious or pedantic. A close reading of the key passages reveals a layering of subtlety and careful distinctions. Bell suggests that the real division between populism and elitism is not so much ideological class conflict but temperament: Populists have confidence in the people's capacity to set social and political standards and make important decisions about how to run their lives, while elitists believe the people are incompetent to do so and wish to define the parameters of social and political life themselves. The elite, in other words, desire to be a de facto National Bureau of Standards and Practices. Hence, elitists exist across the political spectrum.

The most powerful elites—in entertainment, in the media, in higher education—are of course liberal or statist. This provides the overlay for the Quayle project. Bell devotes much of this book to explaining why the liberal elites have not been chastened by the poundings their values have taken in recent national elections.

Bell's book is important because his intended audience—the Republican leadership elite (one might call it the Busheoisie)—doesn't have the first clue about most of his key themes. For a party and an administration of ambition without purpose, Bell provides a useful reality check.

The fundamental fact of our time, for Bell, is that our political culture is still working out the divisions generated by the upheavals of the '60s. It is a mistake, Bell's argument implies, to suppose that the Democratic Party and its liberal elites face an irremediable crisis on account of recent drubbings in national elections and are therefore destined to follow the recent path of the British Labour Party, which plans to cut its special-interest ties to labor unions and disavow explicit socialism. Bell provides a useful reminder that the end of radical socialism does not entail the end of egalitarianism or the politics of equal result. But this battle will be fought not on the old familiar ground of economic policy but in the fever swamps of "values." In this arena, the liberal elites are endlessly resilient.

It is astonishing that the party that won the last national election through an appeal to "values" does not have a better grasp of this. Although Republicans are adept at running on "values," they fully appreciate neither Bell's insight into the divide between elitism and populism nor the opportunity open to them were they to capitalize rightly on populism.

This isn't to suggest that Bell buys into the simple "us vs. them" theme that Republicans seem to think they can exploit forever at four-year intervals. Bell understands that the liberal elites may succeed in undermining conservative populist sentiment over time through the relentless crusade to establish—wait for it—"moral relativism" as the preeminent principle in American society.

Although there is little new to say about the worn-out subject (Bell makes the obligatory nod toward Allan Bloom in his analysis), Bell sharpens the issue by pointing out how value relativism relates to the liberals' cherished goal of egalitarianism; if all "values" are equal, it follows eventually that politics must make people equal as well. Not justice, but relativism, requires leveling. Call it socialism with a Heideggerian face.

The confluence of Bell's book and Quayle's Murphy Brown argument provides an opening to one of the hot new trends among intellectuals on the right: "cultural conservatism." But Bell's careful analysis of populism and elitism in the age of moral relativism implies that the "cultural conservatism" of the Quayle project is not in the end a winning strategy. Although cultural conservatives can rightly cheer what might be viewed as an attempt at "Charles Murray for the masses," it isn't clear that the war over cultural "values" is best fought in the arena of public policy. This is the liberal elite's home field, and home-field advantage usually wins.

To be ultimately successful, a genuine strategy to exploit a (perhaps only temporary) gulf between populist and elitist "values" must seek to diminish the public and political sphere for the liberal elites' values. This means shrinking the state. In other words, whether a single mother ought or ought not to have a child should not be a national political issue.

The relentless politicization of every aspect of private life reveals itself to be a form of low-grade totalitarianism. Washington cannot counteract Hollywood. To attempt to do so, Quayle-style, without shrinking the state is most likely to aggravate the problem. The Quayle project has not yet challenged the fundamental statism of our era, which sees every social problem as a political problem that requires the attention and action of Washington.

Washington could, had it the will, remove the public-policy incentives for low-income women to emulate TV characters. Such a policy would not simply cut programs but would also remind citizens that they are citizens, with responsibilities as well as rights. Not simply government, but the sufficiency of the private sphere is the deeper issue. Refusing to aggrandize the political illusion would give a whole new meaning to the old Reaganite slogan, "Just say no."

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is research and editorial director for the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.