Today’s culture wars are a one-sided matter. The country’s secular elite aggressively advances its agenda for the nation’s daily life and in the process forces a defensive posture on the church and others who prefer a more traditional approach to life. If Washington and this secular elite generally are clear aggressors, they are, however, neither as malicious as some suggest nor as principled as they claim. Rather, they, like any other ruling class in history, do what they do largely to secure their position in power. Since today’s elite has arisen out of a great meritocratic competition, that purpose forces its members continually to assert their superior intelligence and insight. It drives them not only to direct the lives of those they see as less enlightened but also to attack, sometimes mercilessly, any who would question, much less resist those directions.
The last three-plus decades have revealed clearly how these class needs have fostered America’s culture wars. The first step is proof of intellectual and moral superiority. Because simple displays of credentials fail to convince even the elite that it constitutes the best and the brightest of the population, its members have increasingly come to boost themselves by characterizing the general public, those who have done less well in the meritocratic derby or refused to enter it, as largely backward, incompetent, and in need of help managing daily life. Claiming a monopoly on intelligence and insight further denies the members of this elite any tolerance for contrary thinking. They cannot even debate the opposition, for that would give these others too much credit for independent thought. When confronted with resistance, their only recourse is to deride others as bigoted or worse. And because the church in particular best bolsters opposition to elite directives, it holds a prominent place in the list of institutions and practices these people attack. Their desire to retain power has left them little choice but to behave as they have.
Such attitudes are evident in the elite’s every utterance and action. President Obama, a product of this system if ever there was one and presently its leader, has provided numerous illustrations. A personal favorite dates from his first presidential campaign in 2008, when, before a well-heeled and clearly elite San Francisco audience, he glibly explained the failings of those outside their circle. Showing pity, even sympathy, he implied that others lacked the cognitive ability to cope with the modern life. Characterizing them as frightened, he noted that are understandably prone to “cling to their guns and Bibles.” At least he resisted the temptation to characterize them as evil, as many others of his group have. Otherwise, he could not have been more condescending. A Victorian missionary might well have used similar language to describe native resistance to his good news and for the same reason, to assert a fundamental superiority.
The financial community, where I spent the bulk of my career, had still more severe reactions to Tea Party activists. Much of what the Tea Party said should have struck a sympathetic cord with financial people. These activists, after all, demanded less government interference in daily life, lower taxes, and less public spending, all popular causes on Wall Street. But as it turned out, class trumped policy. The meritocratic elite lodged in the country’s financial institutions could not even consider what these people said. To do so would have threatened by suggesting that those without elite credentials could engage in independent thought. Better to hold them beneath consideration. When I reminded my colleagues how the Tea Party espoused similar fiscal policies to those favored in the financial community and was in some respects doing the community’s work, these people did not even pause for thought but immediately reached for words like “bigots,” “nativists,” and “racists.” Nor would the Wall Street elite even hear arguments against their characterizations. That, too, was too threatening.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) among other things seems almost tailor made to meet elite needs. The legislation trumpets the group’s presumed superiority and the public’s incompetence by not only itemizing what procedures and practices government-linked health insurance will cover, but also directing the life choices of all Americans by designating what practices and procedures people must buy. When some, such as The Little Sisters of the Poor, have balked at certain provisions, the Washington elite, true to its needs, has refused even to acknowledge a legitimate basis for the objection. Instead it first tried to buy off The Little Sisters with a transparent subterfuge that itself spoke loudly to the elite’s desperate presumptions of superior intelligence. When that failed, Washington still refused to argue but simply dismissed The Little Sisters as unreasonable, hinting in the process that they were likely in the thrall of some medieval prejudices.
The school lavatory imbroglio about the transgender students makes the matter clearer still. Had Washington really cared about the transgendered, it could have played a sympathy card with the public and invited solutions, a third lavatory, perhaps, or maybe a fourth. Instead, it insisted on intruding people with male parts into the locker rooms and lavatories of teenaged girls. Of all the ways to proceed in this matter, Washington settled on the one most likely to arouse opposition from the church and adherents to traditional mores. Picking a fight intentionally seems a strange way to help the transgendered, but it fits perfectly with the elite’s need to assert its surpassing intelligence and enlightenment and create yet another way to denigrate any who rely on alternative viewpoints. The transgendered, and the teenage girls for that matter, are only foils for the elite to establish its credentials for rule.
More dramatic is the ferocity with which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) persecuted Kim Davis. She is the Kentucky county clerk who, on the basis of her Christian faith, refused to sign same-sex marriage licenses. The ACLU, clearly more as representative of the ruling elite than its clients, pursued her even after the state’s governor removed the need for a signature, erased the reason for her resistance, and so made the matter moot. After its clients had got all that they had wanted, those in the ACLU continued to demand that a judge return Ms. Davis to jail. Only one of three things can explain the ACLU’s vendetta at that stage, none very pretty or enlightened. Either it wanted to punish her for having the temerity to resist the elite’s superior wisdom or it wanted to cow others who would resist elite direction or both. Certainly the people at the ACLU were no longer fighting for their clients.
Class warfare of this kind is hardly new to history. Karl Marx wrote volumes abut one such battle, between the proletariat and a capitalist elite. His followers have long battled the church and traditional culture for their perceived support of what they see as an intolerable status quo. An aristocratic elite in pre-revolutionary France used ancestry and custom to legitimize its position. The revolutionaries accordingly attacked custom and the church as allies of their enemies and, incidentally, to establish themselves in the aristocracy’s place. The United States over the last 70-some years has invited a new meritocratic elite to control the levers of power. Having since established itself, this group is no less eager than any other ruling class to secure its position. Whatever individuals in this elite believe, that need impels them to pursue the culture wars, mercilessly attacking both the church and traditional mores and even beating up on ill-educated county clerks. The needs are desperate and will not disappear until this country modifies the criteria by which it puts people into power.