More Power, Less Principle in the Culture Wars

Today’s culture wars have morphed radically from what they were only ten years ago. Then, they raged between two groups of citizens, those who wanted to protect traditional mores and values and those who wanted to replace them with what they believed were more progressive alternatives. Administrations in Washington, whatever the preferences of individuals in power, took a more or less neutral stance, implementing whatever decisions the courts made or legislation when one side or the other had sufficient votes. More recently, however, government has used its regulatory power decisively on the progressive side. Though the Obama administration shares progressive goals, it would seem that something more fundamental has prompted this profound change. It will likely keep government on the progressive side whatever party is in power.

The change seems to stem from the needs of a new ruling class. It has gained power in Washington gradually, but at last it has replaced a very different older elite. The previous ruling class consisted largely of people with sufficient family and social connections to advance their careers. They well knew the base on which their power rested and accordingly had a clear interest in upholding the traditional culture and customs that served it. This new group, whatever the family and social connections of some of its members, relies on a very different power base. It sees itself as the winners of a great meritocratic competition that claims to have culled the entire population to find the nation’s best and brightest. It has no stake in either custom or tradition.

Indeed, this new group has a positive incentive to challenge traditional customs and culture. Because its legitimacy rests on claims of superior intelligence and insight, it serves it own position when it demonstrates how its insight can improve on customary practice. Its consequent and frequent interferences in daily life naturally create friction with large swatches of the population, which it then antagonizes further by showing little willingness to compromise. Its members are loath even to engage in friendly persuasion. To do so might undermine their status by giving their opposition, who they see as the losers in the great meritocratic competition, too much credit for independent thought. Instead, this new elite reacts to resistance with derision, typically describing any opposition as the product of stupidity or backwardness or bigotry. In this ongoing battle, its hostility focuses most on those institutions in society that bolster public resistance to its directives, social organizations, churches, and synagogues, especially those with the greatest influence over the greatest numbers.

Such attitudes are evident in the elite’s every utterance and action. President Obama, clearly a product of this system, has provided numerous illustrations over the years. A personal favorite dates from his first presidential campaign in 2008, when, before a well-heeled San Francisco audience, he glibly explained the intransigence of those outside their circle. Implying that the losers in the great meritocratic competition may lack the cognitive ability to cope gracefully with the modern life, he characterized them as frightened and understandably prone to “cling to their guns and Bibles.” At least he was sympathetic and resisted the temptation to characterize them as evil, as many others of this elite 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.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) seems tailor-made to serve elite needs. It trumpets the meritocratic elite’s presumed superiority and the public’s incompetence by not only itemizing what procedures and practices government-linked health insurance would cover, but also by designating what practices and procedures people must buy. Having thereby directed the life choices of all Americans, its advocates have chafed at any resistance. When, for instance, The Little Sisters of the Poor, balked at certain ACA provisions, the Washington elite refused even to acknowledge a legitimate basis for the objection. Instead it first tried to buy the Little Sisters off with a transparent subterfuge -- an "accommodation" that would allow the provisions to be provided indirectly -- a gesture that itself spoke loudly to its presumption of superior intelligence. When the Little Sisters saw through the ruse, Washington simply dismissed them as unreasonable, hinting in the process that they were likely in the thrall of some medieval prejudices.

The school lavatory imbroglio about 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 or fourth lavatory perhaps. Instead, it settled on the one way most likely to arouse opposition from the church and adherents to traditional mores. It insisted that the schools allow biologically male teens to enter the locker rooms and lavatories of teenaged girls at will. Picking a fight intentionally seems a strange way to help the transgendered, but it fits perfectly with the elite’s needs by creating yet another way to denigrate any who adhere to alternative views. The transgendered, along with the teenage girls, simply became props to help the ruling class establish its credentials.

Dramatic in its ferocity was the way 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 of its clients, pursued her even after the state’s governor removed the need for a signature and so erased her reason for resistance. After its clients had everything they sought, the ACLU demanded that a judge return Ms. Davis to jail. Only one of three things can explain such a vendetta, none very pretty or enlightened. Either the ACLU 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 about 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 gradually elevated a new meritocratic elite to power. Now 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 to the point of beating up on an ill-educated county clerk. The needs are overriding and will remain until this country modifies the criteria by which it elevates people into positions of power.

Mr. Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and recently retired as Lord, Abbett & Co.’s senior economist and market strategist. His most recent book, Thirty Tomorrows, describing how the world can cope with the challenges of aging demographics, was recently released by Thomas Dunne Books of Saint Martin’s Press.

If you experience technical problems, please write to