In 1989, Francis Fukuyama declared that the end of the history was at hand. The fall of communism in Eastern Bloc nations, Fukuyama argued, meant that capitalist democracy had proven itself to be mankind’s final socio-economic system. Nationalistic sentiments would wither away in the heat of an endless shopping spree.
This was a reasonable thing to believe in the 1990s. The transnational European Union was born alongside a Russo-American honeymoon and a South American opening of markets. Even club music insisted that borders were passé: Eurodance, a genre that topped global charts, featured a Caribbean male rapper paired with a European female vocalist in practically every group. The positivity of the decade infused every track, assuring us that we didn’t have to worry about misery any more. Liberalism of every variety had exorcised conflict from the world.
If The Washington Post’s new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” is anything to go by, internationalism is no longer confident in 2018. This heavy-breathing pronouncement, more appropriate in a punk rock song than on the masthead of a national paper, is a clear rebuke to the Trumps and Brexits of the world. It seems odd that a 140-year-old newspaper would choose a slogan based on an election cycle. That is, until we remember that the Post is written for and by the cosmopolitan class of the United States.
For those of upper-middle class sensibilities, the neoliberal order predicted by the 1990s remains inevitable. It’s as dreamy and poetic as it ever was, separated from practical reality only by the thin veil of a populist interregnum. After all, what’s better than traveling the world? Haven’t you read Eat, Pray, Love?
The love-hate relationship between the upper classes and demotism is pretty new. For most of history, it was a much more straightforward relationship, of the “hate-hate” variety. The humble toiled so that there was food and the elites “toiled” so that there was light and guidance. Mass mobilization never entered into this calculus, and this was reflected by the conspicuous consumption by those on top. Having the time to do things besides working signaled that you weren’t part of the rabble that had to, well, work.
Divine right and breeding didn’t leave much room for debate. For egalitarians, though, being on top is a question in search of answers. As Jason Tebbe of Jacobin observes,
Today, spin classes, artisanal food, and the college application process have replaced Sunday promenades, evening lectures, and weekly salons. But make no mistake, they serve the same purpose: transforming class privilege into individual virtue, thereby shoring up social dominance.
Tebbe is onto something. College today functions as middle-class finishing school, the gate and key to the world outside the service industry. But the critical point that the Jacobin piece misses is that academia is the font of moral instruction in American society, a decade or so upstream from the mass media. We learn at college that “people of color” is the proper designation for non-whites and that “LGBTQA+” is the proper acronym for the broader gay community. This is the twenty-first-century version of knowing which fork to use when navigating a multi-course meal. Where dining etiquette expresses refinement and discipline, politically correct behavior demonstrates a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
But something common is signaled by both protocols: the education and personal virtue that legitimize social elites. The differences between the protocols are functions of a changing moral context. God no longer has the role of moral lawgiver—democracy has crowded him out. Pride Month, which comes every June, is a new sort of Eastertide, complete with passion-plays about LGBT history. Trillion-dollar corporations trip over each other to indicate adherence to the queer, borderless creed. Their otherwise shameful power is sanitized. Just as attacks on the the king were once reframed as rebellions against God, attacks on corporations and governments today can be neutralized as bigotry. Whether this is justified — or if it even works — isn’t relevant. What matters is that diversity is the moral order that power instinctively tries to map itself onto.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that every dominant cultural institution has aligned against Donald Trump. Populism, in contrast to democracy, is deeply worrisome to the powerful. It appeals to the morally defective, who use the wrong fork and the wrong pronouns. Its problematic language is inevitably the language of the townie and the boozer, direct and demotic, vulgar and in need of decontamination through linguistic missionary work. And, most importantly, its particularism cuts vertical lines through the wide, horizontal world of the elite.
Trump made this clear in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017 : “I’m not representing the globe, I am representing your country.”
NAFTA, the Iraq War, and porous borders were all mistakes, in the president’s mind. So it’s clear that the transnational elite is neither left nor right; cosmopolitanism has been the establishment consensus since at least the Cold War. A Republican who justifies the Iraq War as “spreading democracy” and supports the free flow of labor is as much a member of the ideological aristocracy as a diversity-minded Democrat. It’s easy to see where the two find common cause with headlines like “How godless capitalism made America multicultural.” Aristocrats today have a more flexible justification for their position than ever before.
If anything, the conspicuous consumption of acceptance ideology is a post-hoc rationalization for capitalism when socialism is dead and gone. Nowhere is it more evident than in Silicon Valley, with its enormous wealth and not-quite-libertarian but not-quite-liberal ethic. Mark Zuckerberg, who is rumored to have presidential ambitions, released photos himself traveling the American heartland. Most of them are captioned with platitudes like this:
This state is complex, and everyone has a lot of layers — as Americans, as Texans, as members of a local community, and even just as individuals. But this trip has helped me understand just how important community is, and how we’re all just looking for something we can trust.
We may come from different backgrounds, but we all want to find purpose and authenticity in something bigger than ourselves.
And how could he write anything that isn’t trite? He could not possibly relate to these people, except with truisms so broad they are meaningless. The only other relationship would be plainly hierarchical. Mark Zuckerberg and every person he surrounds himself with reside on a circuit running between San Francisco, New York, Paris, Dubai, and Shanghai. Rural Texans, by contrast, are sedentary. They have everything to learn from Zuckerberg about power, but nothing to teach. Except, of course, how he can win their vote.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos seems to be on the same page regarding this information asymmetry. The Washington Post, acquired by Bezos a few years ago, positions itself as a guiding light for a benighted nation. Pushing back the shadow is presented as a civilizing mission of the cosmopolitan class. Perhaps such a master-student relationship is the best that the humble can hope for. Everything else so far has been naked contempt.
Robert Mariani is co-founder of Jacobite magazine. Follow him on Twitter.
An earlier version of this article first appeared at First Things.