Limousine liberals and corporate-jet conservatives

George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter bash elitist lefties, but their faux populism masks a slavish devotion to the interests and indulgences of the wealthy. Part 2 of "Big Lies."

Published August 19, 2003 11:48PM (EDT)

"Tax-cutting Republicans are friends of the common man, while liberals are snobbish elitists who despise the work ethic." One of the most successful themes of conservative propaganda is the notion that the right, not the left, represents everyday working Americans. Conservatives claim to speak for the silent majority and depict liberals as silly, affluent elitists who despise the work ethic. Promoting envy and resentment of "limousine liberals" is the right-wing version of class warfare. It's an updated, socially acceptable substitute for the traditional prejudices used by the most unsavory right-wingers to distract people from voting in their own interest.

There is no point in denying that limousine liberals exist or that they can be obnoxious -- but any trouble they cause is far outweighed by the depredations of another remote and arrogant elite: corporate-jet conservatives. Recent revelations of that set's incomprehensible greed and callousness make the limo liberals seem like saints. And unlike any clique of left-wing movie stars, they're a real problem.

At the turn of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt denounced such people as "malefactors of great wealth." A hundred years later, there are two very important differences: The rich have indeed gotten far richer -- and the president of the United States is not their foe but their frontman.

For that job, George W. Bush possesses excellent qualifications of personality and temperament. He's a rich guy who enjoys masquerading as a regular guy, and he honestly hates the clever types from New York, Washington and Los Angeles who consider him dumb and vulgar. Ignorant but certainly not stupid, he's an unusually talented politician. He schmoozes and chats at county fairs and fat-cat feasts with an ease that always eluded his father. Moreover, although most voters realize that he will first take care of the wealthy -- the oilmen and the corporate lobbyists -- they like him anyway. He seems charming, approachable, caring and playful. His drawling gaffes sound unpretentious and real. And he can perform for hours at a time, in front of perfect strangers whose background is entirely different from his own.

Bush is a modern master of pseudopopulist style. What that style blurs is the profound Republican cynicism toward the same people he embraces and cajoles.

Bush belongs to the real elite. Yet he appears far more comfortable playing the role of commoner than his father, whose taste for pork rinds always seemed out of character. George W. used to say that the big difference between them is that his father went to Greenwich Day School in that tony Connecticut suburb, while he attended San Jacinto High School in dusty Midland, Texas. He didn't mention that after one year, he left public education behind to attend exclusive prep schools in Houston and Massachusetts, leading inexorably to his Yale matriculation as an underachieving "legacy" admission.

George W. is the kind of "regular guy" who burns through millions of other people's dollars in failed businesses, drinks too much until early middle age, dodges an insider-trading scandal, picks up a major league baseball franchise, and eventually finds himself in the Oval Office as commander in chief of the world's only superpower, thanks to a justice appointed to the Supreme Court by his father.

He likes to talk about helping the average taxpayer. "Average" is the word he used in his 2003 State of the Union message to mislead the public about the effects of his tax cut, saying that "92 million Americans will keep, this year, an average of almost a thousand dollars more of their own money." Doesn't that sound as if Bush is saying each of those 92 million citizens will find a $1,000 check from the Treasury in the mailbox? It does, but the truth is that wealthy taxpayers like Bush himself will get many thousands of dollars, while everyone else will get a few hundred dollars (except for those at the bottom, who will get no tax break at all).

There is a meaningful way to calculate the average effects of the Bush plan: The fortunate 1 percent at the top will receive an average annual tax cut of about $45,000. The less fortunate 20 percent in the middle of the income distribution will have their taxes cut by an average of $265. The least fortunate 60 percent at the bottom will get an average annual tax cut of $95.

It all depends on what the meaning of "average" is.

Voters who regard George W. Bush as a regular guy may also be deluded enough to accept his transparent arithmetical deceptions about the "average" taxpayer. Most of them live in the reddest of Republican states, whose taxpayers are least likely to benefit from Bush's 2003 tax proposals: states like Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Montana, Idaho, and Tennessee, where more than a third of the taxpaying families will get nothing at all.

Right-wing populism is an illusion that hides a fundamental fact of American politics: With very few exceptions, conservative Republicans promote the narrow interests of a tiny minority of our wealthiest citizens. Liberal Democrats, again with certain exceptions, defend the broad interests of working and middle-class Americans. Over the past three decades, as economic inequality has intensified, that partisan and ideological divide has become ever more polarized.

While conservatives may demur, the empirical evidence is beyond serious dispute. The stratification of America's political economy in recent decades has been mapped by three distinguished political scientists: Princeton's Nolan McCarty and Howard Rosenthal, and their colleague Keith T. Poole of the University of Houston (who holds a chair endowed in the name of former Enron CEO Kenneth L. Lay). Among the organizations that have published research papers by these three nonpartisan academics is the very conservative American Enterprise Institute. Their studies and others have established that growing class polarization between the two major parties has coincided with increasing income stratification in American society. Using a complex computerized map graphing congressional voting patterns over the past century, the three professors have found precisely the same polarization between the parties on Capitol Hill. With increasing consistency, Democrats support legislation that helps the middle class and the poor, while Republicans protect their affluent constituency.

In other words, that little Monopoly plutocrat in the top hat is back with a vengeance, grasping bags marked with dollar signs. He's still a Republican, he has a lot more money now, and he has probably become a patron of the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute -- like "Kenny Boy" Lay. He is likely to be a Fortune 500 CEO or a Forbes 400 heir as well as a major Bush fundraiser -- like Maurice "Hank" Greenberg (American International Group insurance), Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV (Johnson & Johnson heir), or Lee Bass (Bass family oil interests). He may have flown Bush around the country on a corporate jet during the 2000 primaries -- like Heinz Prechter (American Sunroof) or Alex Spanos (A.G. Spanos real estate). He would surely take a call from Tom DeLay or Bill Frist when they need to funnel money to a candidate or sponsor negative advertising -- like Carl Lindner (American Financial Group, Chiquita Brands) and Sam Wyly (Maverick Capital, Green Mountain Power). His priorities are faithfully reflected by conservative think tanks and Republican politicians, and he is assuredly not one of the little guys.

To deflect attention from this plutocratic elite, the right deploys a barrage of abusive verbiage about the alleged elitism of the left. Somehow those clichés remain perpetually fresh, at least in the minds of those who scream them. There are "limousine liberals" and "Hollywood liberals" and "Eastern establishment liberals" and "liberal eggheads" and "liberal academics" and "privileged liberals" and "upper-class liberals" and "Upper West Side liberals" and "Harvard boutique liberals" and "liberal snobs" -- as well as "liberal elitists" and, of course, "elitist liberals."

It is an old theme that can be traced back to Joe McCarthy's vituperative assaults on the "striped pants" Democratic diplomats and liberal intellectuals from Yale and Harvard. (People who read and think often arouse suspicion on the far right.) It gathered greater force when Richard Nixon vented his enduring resentment of the Kennedy family, which eventually mutated into an attack on his "elitist" opponent George McGovern, a prairie Democrat who was nothing of the kind. It persists in Rush Limbaugh's daily tirades against Hollywood liberals and the "rich Democrat presidential candidates," a "bunch of vastly wealthy multimillionaires" trying to disguise the fact that they, too, are "elitists."

In "Slander," Ann Coulter goes further. She insists that Democrats "actually hate working-class people" and that "all conceivable evidence supports the theory that liberalism is a whimsical luxury of the very rich -- and the very poor, both of whom have little stake in society." Why the very wealthy would have little stake in the society that enriches and idolizes them is an assertion she leaves unexplained, like so many others in her screed. But she expatiates at length on her view that conservatives are "aggressively anti-elitist," the only true friends of the little folk for whom liberals feel only contempt. She supports this assertion by noting archly that four of the wealthiest U.S. senators happen to be liberal Democrats.

No doubt there are frightful liberal snobs to be found in Manhattan, Malibu, and Cambridge (and the Senate), just as there are appalling conservative snobs lurking in Houston, Greenwich, and Virginia's horse country. Like any other human trait, excessive attitude cuts across political, geographic, economic and ethnic boundaries. Having grown up in one of Connecticut's most exclusive and conservative suburbs, Ann Coulter could be expected to know that her own beloved WASP Republicans are hardly free of snobbery -- and she probably does, despite all her tiresome harping on the "veiled class bigotry" of liberals.

The essential fraudulence of such right-wing populism could be glimpsed in Cigar Aficionado's profile of Rush Limbaugh. Interviewed for the luxury magazine by a fellow epicure, the radio talker felt free to drop any pretense of resembling the middle-class "ditto-heads" who worship him. Although his trademark theme is the polarizing struggle between "us" (conservative, hardworking middle Americans) and "them" (liberal Democrat elitists), the private Rush is actually a ridiculous snob in matters of wine, cigars, hotels and all the other pleasures of upper-bracket life.

He informed Cigar Aficionado that his favorite Bordeaux is Chateau Haut Brion '61, although he allowed that he would settle for the '82 vintage. (For those who may not know -- perhaps including the typical Limbaugh fan -- a bottle of the exceedingly rare 1961 Haut Brion retails for around $2,000. That isn't much to a "regular guy" who earns upward of $20 million a year.)

Name-dropping wine vintages is standard if unsophisticated snob behavior. Still, for a xenophobic rabble-rouser from Missouri, Limbaugh's cultural aspirations are very refined. Much as he professes to dislike big-city liberals and perfidious foreigners, he loved living in New York City "for its culture and restaurants." He doesn't vacation at Disney World or Six Flags with his fans, either. When this man of the people takes a few days off, he prefers Paris, San Francisco or London -- and whenever he pops over to London, he stays at the Connaught, one of the oldest, priciest, snootiest joints in town. What he buys in London, Paris and Saint Maarten are Cuban cigars, regardless of legal embargoes and the vileness of Havana's Communist dictatorship. As a cigar snob, he doesn't let principle get in the way of a superior smoke.

Limbaugh shares the tastes and prejudices (as well as the restaurants and hotels) of the same elite that he denounces on the airwaves. But he is no more inconsistent than his friend Coulter. She claims to prefer the wholesome atmosphere of Kansas City, where the "real Americans" live -- but not so long ago she moved from Washington to Manhattan, a place she supposedly despises. With satellite communications and the Internet, there is no professional reason why Limbaugh and Coulter can't live anywhere they like. Despite their populist posturing, both prefer Sodom-on-Hudson to the red-state heartland.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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Ann Coulter George W. Bush Rush Limbaugh