The Magazine

A Guide to Elite Opinion

California's Prop. 8, Alaska's governor, and other abominations.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By JEFFREY BELL
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In times like these, when conservatives are licking their wounds and trying to figure out what comes next, a helpful framework exists. It starts with a simple, self-evident fact: There is such a thing as elite opinion that is not the same as popular opinion.

Sometimes elite opinion is honestly of two minds, and has a vigorous internal debate that, in a republic like ours, winds up going to popular opinion for resolution. The first two contested elections in the United States, the close Adams-Jefferson elections of 1796 and 1800, exemplify this.

At other times, elites in a democracy have a tendency to get overly bound up with social status and careerism, and there is a premium on conformity. Having the right views, and the right way of expressing such views, becomes an emblem of elite status and a harbinger of career advancement. More and more issues become "not debatable." At such times, elite opinion is likely to see itself as self-evidently superior to popular opinion, and its role toward popular opinion as--shall we say--educative.

By the Friday after the election, what had happened in California had become a little too awkward for elite opinion to ignore. It was not so much that Proposition 8--writing marriage between a man and a woman into the state constitution, over the vehement objections of the California Supreme Court, the Republican governor, the Democratic legislature, Senator Barack Obama, and every editorial page and opinion writer imaginable--had passed. With similar results the same day in Florida and Arizona, the scoreboard in popular referenda on such amendments is now Marriage 30, Same Sex Marriage 0. It was the fact that in the most socially liberal state in the country, whites had voted (narrowly) against the amendment, Hispanics narrowly for, and black voters overwhelmingly for the traditional definition of marriage. Amazingly, Los Angeles County, which chose Obama over McCain 69 percent to 29 percent, supported Proposition 8, with black voters in crime-ridden South Los Angeles neighborhoods like Compton voting strongly in favor, while Beverly Hills, Westwood, and Pacific Palisades were tolerantly and disdainfully against.

So elite opinion makers had to say something about these black voters. The accounts I saw said two things: Many blacks are bigoted against gays, and the pro-Proposition 8 forces got to California's black pastors. In other words, the anti-same-sex-marriage black voters are bigoted, they are sheep, or most likely some combination of the two. No other analysis offered--or needed.

I suspect the reality of this vote, once elite opinion's multiple stereotypes of black voters are set aside, has more to do with the aspirational nature of American values politics and of our social issues in general. It is why, no matter how hedonistic and promiscuous our mass culture gets, social issues show zero sign of disappearing from American politics the way they have from those of Western Europe and Japan.

American voters, and not just white voters in red states, still believe they have not just the right but the democratic obligation to set standards for their communities. They remain far from ready to take at face value the assurances of judicial, media, and academic elites on how things must be, however unanimous these elites appear to be. Socially conservative Americans, black and white, regret and (my sense is) are deeply self-critical of their own frequent failure to overcome the surrounding culture and live up to the standards they believe in. But to them it does not follow that the standards should no longer exist, or (in the openly stated, nearly unanimous view of elite opinion) should no longer even be debated in politics.

This misunderstanding is at the heart of the single biggest blunder in the ongoing war against Sarah Palin. Journalistic elites were seemingly persuaded that their outing of the unwed pregnancy of Bristol Palin would be a "gotcha" moment, one that very likely would drive Sarah Palin from the race or at the very least make her a negligible force in Middle America. Instead, millions of voters were electrified in admiration, realizing that they were in the presence of a politician who, even in the midst of a humiliating family crisis, was committed to living her beliefs rather than simply paying them lip service.

The McCain-Palin campaign was just the beginning of the full assault against Sarah Palin, which will pursue her to Alaska and continue unabated until she is destroyed or withdraws from politics. Until that moment, Palin and her allies will see no end to reports that she believes Africa is a country, doesn't know what countries are in NAFTA, and angled to run for vice president because she always wanted to go on a shopping spree at Neiman Marcus.

The last thing conservatives should do is let themselves be drawn into a debate over her campaign, how it was handled, and whether it was a net plus or net minus for John McCain. In the end people's judgment about that won't matter unless Palin internalizes the attacks and retreats from national politics. So far she seems unlikely to draw such a conclusion, which is very worrisome to elite opinion.

The reason elite opinion makers are set on destroying her is fear. They sense that like Ronald Reagan, and unlike, say, Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, she really, genuinely doesn't care what they think, and for that reason is willing and able to go over their heads and make a strong, direct appeal to voters. Some of them may even remember that Ronald Reagan's negatives were as high as his positives in the polls as late as 10 days before he carried 44 states in 1980.

This is a time when elite opinion, including its conservative wing, is unanimous in wanting American politics to become a value-free zone in the image of Western Europe. A refusal to defer to elite opinion, the confidence that it can be overcome, may be the single most important quality in conservative politics.

Apart from this willingness to go against elite opinion, conservatives should stop asking themselves who, if anyone, is the new Reagan. That way lies madness. So far there isn't another Ronald Reagan. There may never be. Besides, most people (including his advisers) didn't know Ronald Reagan was Ronald Reagan until he was out of office.

What they should ask themselves instead is, can there be a conservative Barack Obama? That is, can a conservative presidential candidate be a dynamic speaker, draw huge crowds, go viral on the Internet, and launch a populist money machine capable of playing in the same league with Obama himself? (If not, if this proves to be something unique to the left, American conservatism may have a rather limited future.)

One of the key characteristics of elite opinion, particularly at times like the present when it has become so unanimous that it has forgotten what it is to have a real debate, is repetition of the claim that some issues are settled, or no longer subject to serious debate. The end of the debate on global warming. The end of the Reagan era. The end of neoconservatism. The end of social conservatism.

The end of Sarah Palin.

The one thing to be sure of is that as long as elite opinion keeps declaring that something has ended, it hasn't ended yet.

Jeffrey Bell, author of Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality (1992), is completing work on Social Conservatism: The Movement That Polarized American Politics. He is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.