What if institutional trust has dissipated not because of venery or dishonesty or fecklessness, but simply because our elites are immature brats holding grudges from childhood?
Sound bizarre? Reductive? Maybe even a little projecting? (No, no, no. I didn’t become a conservative to spite my liberal mother who made me read Michael Moore in seventh grade. But Milton Friedman totally would have bought me a PS2 and Game Boy Color when I humbly requested both for Christmas—just saying!)
The chip-on-the-young-shoulder theory may sound far-fetched, even overly pat. But it might be more right than wrong, at least, according to a strange and revealing admission by economist Noah Smith. On everyone’s favorite public confessional booth, Twitter, Smith, a college prof-turned-columnist for a billionaire’s pet gazette, explains the catalyst behind elitist disdain of culchies stewing in a slough of benightedness: “Getting picked on by rednecks as a kid sucked.”
Well, yes, getting bullied by farm boys in OshKosh B’gosh bib overalls can be a drag. Smith grew up in College Station—a far remove from the blue Yankeedom that produces America’s prominent liberal big brains. So it stands to reason, as a lefty bookworm, he had more than his fair share of wet willies and pantsing growing up. But Jack & Diane taught us that high school’s gauntlet of razzing is brief. Maturation is supposed to occlude the jeers of adolescence. But for some like Smith, the emotional wounds don’t heal, only scar. The lingering spite induces brain drain, then revenge.
“So what did liberal Gen Xers and Millennials do?” Smith asks, regarding the vats of non-potable water he swallowed while being plumped upside down into school commodes. Easy: they blew the small town. “We moved out. We didn’t stay and work to build a real nation out of the people who gave us a hard time. We got college degrees that allowed us to escape to better places.”
Smith’s insight is a common tale. The much-maligned “hollowing out” of the Rust Belt and other rural outposts was due to globalization, but not strictly outsourcing our manufacturing base to China (which, while exporting jobs, brought the fruits of cheap plastic finery to Walmart shelves nationwide). Labor arbitrage is half the cause; the other half is people like Smith picking up their mental stakes and heading to the big city.
“Talented, ambitious young people tend to move up and out, encouraged by an inclusive elite that is eager to draw into itself those whom, two generations ago, would have been kept out of the establishment,” Rusty Reno wrote back in 2016. “This has decapitated most communities, depriving a great deal of Americans of their natural leaders.”
But the problem runs deeper than citadels picking off curious novitiates from the outerlands.
It wasn’t so much an exodus as a retreat in preparation for repatriation. Smith goes on: “The story of liberal Gen Xers and Millennials will thus be this: We ran away from the rednecks, but we built an Internet by which we could transmit liberal values back to rural and exurban areas from our coastal and college-town enclaves.”
What are the liberal values to which Smith speaks? Presumably the small-l ones: tolerance, inclusion, openness, free thinking, along with the lefty stalking horses like fossil-fuel abolition and socialist control. You know, the same-old lib laundry list that a Trump-voting, rusted F-150 driving, stars-and-bars saluting good ol’ boy hocks a chaw on.
Here we reach the point of highlighting an embittered Twitter thread from a former academic with a sharp axe to grind. Like the well-meaning crusading American servicemen and women out to mold desert dwellers into liberal-democratic consumers half the world away, the laptop class hunched over their glowing MacBooks is here to re-educate the rubes whom they’ve loathed since striplinghood. With the internet as the inroad, the revenge of the nerds can finally be reified. (How do you say ¡Hasta la victoria, siempre! in Klingon?)
This is where the endless “woke” madness comes in: critical-race theory, the 1619 Project, teaching transgenderism to kindergartners, sterilized neologisms like “birthing people,” bunkshooting about equity. It’s an ideological invasion of the hinterlands to impose cultural conformity, carried out by overly-credentialed SJWs from the comfort of garçonnières with rents higher than the 5-bedroom Colonials they’re spamming with DiAngelo tracts.
Then there’s the heaping loads of contempt, and outright hatred, that color the purifying vision of the metro proselytizers. From New York Times econ-columnist Paul Krugman likening red states to suicidal leeches, to Democratic ad man Rick Wilson mocking southerners on CNN, to news hoaxes like MAGA warriors nuking their intestines with “horse paste” to fend off a virus they think is a Bill Gates invention—this de haut en bas posturing isn’t about righting wrongthink. It’s as grievance-larded as the hayseeds who blame decadent urbanites for their kids being hooked on barbiturates.
Smith ends his thread hoping the “neo-Confederate rebellion” is put down to pave the way for a unified “liberal nation.” His sentiment is not unique among his prosperous class. Smith cites Will Wilkinson’s Southernification thesis—the wide adoption of Lost Cause mannerisms in jerkwater areas that were never in the South—to shore up his postulation that rural resistance to sneering cosmopolitanism is, to paraphrase Clausewitz, just the Civil War by other means.
The entire corporate-media-culture-tech-politics complex is bent upon wiping the last residua of rebellion, what Marx called the “idiocy of rural life.” But Smith overestimates the didactical power of the internet and underestimates how resent-stirring Marcusian “repressive tolerance” is. If anything, social media’s instant communication has helped consolidate yokel mores into a real voting bloc—the exact one that, paired with unwoke suburbanites, put a rural-attuned billionaire in the White House. And that bloc is none too happy to be pushed around by know-it-alls who can’t tell wheat from tares.
America’s pop-density divide is a stubborn characteristic of our national life. Mere technological meliorism employed by the over-educated won’t eradicate it, just as damning the Gomorrahites for fomes peccati won’t convert them to reliable Republican voters. The cultural partition must be lived with.
The moral of the story: don’t strip the Dungeons & Dragons kids of their lunch money before shoving them into lockers. Otherwise, they’ll get PhDs and try to teach your children that 2+2=5, war is peace, and being racist is how you kill racism.
Old offenses die hard.