The story of one of the longest-lasting negative metaphors in America politics: the limousine liberal.
In this rich, incisive book, Fraser (The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, 2015, etc.) traces the complex history of a political metaphor intended to characterize hypocritical liberals who live self-satisfied lives of elitism and decadence while feigning deep concern for the poor. The term was first coined during John Lindsay’s 1969 New York mayoral campaign; his Democratic opponent, Mario Procaccino of the Bronx, described the election as a contest between affluent Manhattan reformers (who rode in limos, not subway cars) and the working-class outer boroughs. In their classic incarnation, limousine liberals are wealthy, socially connected graduates of tony prep schools and Ivy League colleges. In fact, writes Fraser, the term now signifies the lifestyle of diverse individuals, from actors Ben Affleck and George Clooney, who are “excoriated for the same conspicuously empty moralizing and self-righteous gesturing,” to Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, who supported Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Based largely in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, and with the New Yorker as their house organ, these liberals have spurred “an enduring politics of resentment directed against most of the major reforms of the last seventy-five years,” including civil rights, women’s liberation, and the welfare state. Indeed, the limousine liberal epithet has fueled right-wing populist politics in America. The author examines the long prehistory of animosity against cosmopolitan America, as evinced by the Scopes trial and the Ku Klux Klan and right-wing populists from Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin through today’s tea party. Noting that limousine liberals have been seen as threatening “the integrity of the family, racial hierarchy, and the virility of the homeland,” Fraser conveys the ferocity of America’s culture wars in his sharp observations, which often cut uncomfortably close to the bone: “Awash in white guilt, [limousine liberals] genuflect before impassioned journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
Provocative, timely, and immensely rewarding reading.