The Specter of Democracy

A recent New Yorker cartoon is proof that elite liberals still harbor contempt for mass democracy.

pjohnkeane / Flickr

Last week, the New Yorker published a cartoon that quickly became an ideological Rorschach test.

When Clintonite liberals looked at the drawing — which depicted an angry airplane passenger calling on fellow travelers to support his bid to take over the plane from the “smug,” out-of-touch pilots — many discerned a biting, incisive satire of the populist shift in contemporary politics. They sung the cartoonist’s praises and tutted at the confused, idiotic masses foolish enough to think that they should decide who flies the metaphorical plane.

Others reacted quite differently, viewing the cartoon as another example of the preening condescension that’s helped elevate populist politicians of various stripes. They fumed as their timelines filled up with jokes about the rubes that refused to leave politics to the experts.

A week later, the controversy has largely died down. But the contretemps revealed plenty about elite liberalism in the process.

The plane analogy breaks down after a moment’s consideration.

For one, it assumes that the existing pilots have been doing a decent job.

But what if they kept periodically crashing, and declined to repair the damage before taking off again? What if, due to operator negligence, the people in the cheaper seats were forced to hold on for dear life because some of their windows were shattered? What if, in other words, the pilots didn’t seem to care about the health and safety of those in economy class because they were too busy trying to keep the passengers in first class happy?

This rendering is much closer to reality. And it points to why many passengers might be eager for a change. Even if it’s unclear whether an alternative pilot would actually make things better, it may seem worth the gamble — particularly for those edging closer to the smashed windowpane. Announcements from the cockpit that repairs are unnecessary because the plane is “already great” are likely to fall on deaf ears.

To stretch the airplane metaphor to its absolute limit, the rebellious would-be pilot could advocate a couple different solutions to the passengers’ predicament. He could try and win over people on one side of the aisle by claiming that the people on the other side were the cause of the problem. The windows would go unfixed, but perhaps the illusion of a solution would placate the passengers.

An entirely different tactic would be to take the trays used to serve drinks in first class and nail them over the shattered windows. The pampered passengers up front, who’d grown accustomed to being waited on hand and foot, would of course oppose this move. But it would improve the basic security and livelihood of those in economy class. (Perhaps it could even snowball into a mass takeover of the plane.)

The logic of the New Yorker cartoon recognizes no distinction between these two approaches. The idea that passengers want change of any sort is mocked as inherently ridiculous.

That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism. Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history — that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.

For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage. While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?

If politics is about nothing more than the effective administration of the current system — if it’s about nothing more than putting one’s faith in an able pilot — experience and technical expertise are the primary requirements. Ideological differences are immaterial, conflicting interests obsolete.

Elite liberals grew so confident that their “pilot” conception of politics had triumphed that when fury erupted from the outside, many were apoplectic, having forgotten that their views were even open to contest. For years they’d felt little need to police the boundaries of respectable discourse, because the only viable political options were reasonably close to the existing center and decidedly hostile to any program of radical change.

Sanders and Trump, in very different ways, upset all of that. Liberal denizens of the political establishment reacted to both with strident denunciations. Populism was treated as a cancer, whether from the right or left.

Sanders’s chief crime was his persistent denunciation of political and economic elites. But the Nordic-style social democracy he advocated was also considered to be too far from the status quo. (Liberal elites tend to presume that the limits of political possibility fall exactly in line with existing Democratic Party policy for the same reason ancients assumed that Earth was at the center of the universe.)

During the Democratic primary, Sanders’s campaign was tolerated until it became an inconvenience, at which point the Vermont senator was castigated for failing to step aside and support the establishment candidate. His attacks on Clinton’s Wall Street and health industry connections were labeled unacceptable and even sexist by people whose notion of good governance is drawn largely from West Wing box sets.

For those who believe the best politicians are those with the most experience wielding power — on the theory that they’re likely to have the best understanding of how it all works — Clinton was self-evidently the rightful nominee. Not only had she previously served as secretary of state, it wouldn’t even have been her first time living in the White House.

The Clinton campaign betrayed the same hubristic sense of inevitability, down to the “I’m With Her” slogan. Her candidacy was about her own ascendance — voters were just along for the ride.

Yet when she was beaten by a permatanned, loose cannon reality TV star with no political experience and a habit of making comments that alienated whole swathes of the population, the response of several liberal commentators was to suggest that the public had let her down. Her bland wonkery wasn’t evidence of her incompetence, but an indictment of the millions of voters who had turned their back on a candidate with unimpeachable expertise.

In the minds of her staunch defenders, ambitious proposals and Sanders-style rhetoric were the mark of the unserious, nothing more than demagogic appeals to the unlettered. Hillary was above all of that. To bring things back to the plane analogy, she wouldn’t stoop to the level of taking a drinks tray from first class and using it to patch over the windows. So the choice was between Trump’s noxious populism (scapegoating those in the other row) and Clinton’s patronizing insistence that nothing was actually wrong.

The fervent applause for the New Yorker cartoon shows that many elite liberals still haven’t learned the lessons of the general election.

Rather than mocking voters fed up with the political establishment, Democratic elites should be asking themselves how they managed to lose to an opponent with such obvious weaknesses. If they have any sense, they’d look to Sanders as an example of an alternative approach.

The problem is, this would require acknowledging that there are major problems with the existing system. It would require rejecting the politics of technocracy and calling out those in first class.

Instead, it seems many Clintonite liberals are choosing to cling to the comfort blanket of smug condescension and class-tinged ridicule, as the catastrophe they helped create inches toward the White House.