Ben in Berkeley Scolds the Poor

Democracy is still new to conservatives in certain ways. Even so, it’s strange for a democratic people to see full-throated moralism denouncing the poor from an oligarchic position. For a certain brand of conservative—and in spite of all trends pointing elsewhere—it remains what’s hot today. Ben Shapiro just stood up for that kind of conservatism at the University of California at Berkeley by saying the poor have no one to blame but themselves; it’s their actions that made them so.

How did he get there? Clearly, he has nothing but the best intentions—and a rather unpleasant polemical attitude. He wasn’t invited and did not attend in order to address the people who invited him. He was there to rant, as intelligently as possible, with witty repartee, facts, and figures, against the people who wanted to stop him or oppose him. That’s why we have political celebrities, after all. They exist to be weaponized against the people we’d like to see get a verbal cudgeling.

We’re not in need of learning or doing things together as conservatives or Republicans. And if we were, Shapiro would hardly be the professor for the job. The few non-liberal students at Berkeley needed a champion to wage a war of words against the Left. That’s where the publicity is; they got it; it makes Shapiro their Achilles!

Shapiro wanted (altogether appropriately and patriotically) to say America is the greatest thing ever. So far so good. Who could disagree? He also correctly mocked intersectionality and identity politics. Even some liberals like Mark Lilla argue against those things, so we’re on our way to a majority coalition here, folks! He defended free speech and open debate, privileging disagreement, which was also a sporting attitude. Indeed, sir, indeed! Let us have the dignity of disagreement when we win every election forever!

But then he came up against his attempt to attack intersectionality with arguments and we wound up with this stuff about poor people:

Nobody rich is making you poor . . . The rich are not making you poor. They are paying your salary! . . . Income mobility drops only when you drop out of high-school or you have a baby out of wedlock. Ok? This is what makes you poor!

He also helpfully reminded us that in order to stay out of permanent poverty people have to get jobs. Deep insight, that.It’s your fault if you’re poor is now the height of conservative political discourse? Great! He’s there to reassure us that only 2 percent of the people who fulfill the three conditions required of them to avoid poverty will remain poor. Those would be deserving poor, maybe, but not the other 98 percent. They have it coming!

I’ve talked with conservative friends about this. They tell me, no, he didn’t say what you said; no, he didn’t mean it; no, it’s really all right. They are not college kids looking for revenge against liberals who dominate and intimidate on campuses. We’re talking about adult, productive, responsible, moral Americans. I’m not here to blame them, either. But it’s necessary to learn that these ranty talks are anti-democratic in the basic sense: they bend over backward to prove the poor have only themselves to blame. In short, no moral solidarity is possible in America—except maybe if poor people apologize first? I don’t think a continuation and amplification of these kinds of arguments will do much to ensure many people would be willing to trust conservatives or the GOP with the government. Nor should it.

Of course, maybe Shapiro doesn’t notice it, either. Maybe he will grow out of it. Conservatism cannot keep saying, along with Mitt Romney and other proven rhetorical losers, that America is a country where 47 percent are takers, not makers; that the heroes we need to be talking about are job creators; maybe the poor should just quit being such failures. Maybe writing off half the nation is not the way to go.

Another conservative friend told me this today, 47 percent of Americans pay no taxes. I’m not sure how representative he is of conservatism or of the GOP electorate. Perhaps it’s not representative of himself, either, just a slip. Probably, he just meant the federal income tax. But it’s telling. This anger at half the country is there. Paying for celebrities who make it seem sexy and smart and funny to talk that way may relieve frustration, but it comes at a price to be counted in the same numbers.

A massive part of the electorate in 2016 wanted Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Maybe those people could never agree on one candidate and ride off together into the sunset to win the presidency. But it’s certain that none of their number in either grouping would ever vote for the kind of conservatism that’s a thinly disguised oligarchy.

Shapiro is not a revelation, he’s just the latest yapping mouth. The work it will take to build trust among poor Americans rather than just mouthing (even well-deserved) insults against Sanders is going to be tough. Every time conservatives choose moralistic blaming of the poor, they should remember: the poor may not be able to put up candidates, talk to politicians, or pay for the lifestyles of political celebrities, but they have voting rights, too.

The price the GOP and conservatives stand to pay for not making a serious alliance with the working class is likely to make the cost of Obamacare look like a crazy weekend in Berkeley back in their college days. No amount of snark or wit is going to change the political realities of America or solve the crisis of conservatism.


About Titus Techera

Titus Techera is executive director of the American Cinema Foundation. He's also a graduate student in political science, a former Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and a contributor to The Federalist, National Review Online, and

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31 responses to “Ben in Berkeley Scolds the Poor”

  1. Liberal: you poor, poor, thing, here is a gazillion tax dollars to make you feel better…
    Conservative: you horrid lazy idiot, you should be able to compete with someone from mexico or china that will accept $0.25/day even though we would tax and regulate to death any entrepreneur that built a factory here. Retrain yourself! Sell stuff on the internet, or do Uber. Or get a U-Haul and move to where the Jobs are (French and KW at NR). So what if illegals are taking all you jobs, move where they aren’t doing so!

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  2. Ben Shapiro is a mind-numbing jerk, best known for his melodramatic defense of Michelle Field when Corey Lewandowski tried to stop her barging up to Donald Trump. That lead to his leaving Breitbart in a huff and with a new gig all ready for him, bought and paid for. The Daily Wire. Convenient, right? With lots of publicity, right? Many of us believe the Berkeley gig was just another self-promotion. You think?

    (With his tirade against the poor, isn’t he just channelling (regurgitating?) a Kevin Williamson piece from NR a while back?)

  3. Titus, so the answer for the poor in America is what, exactly?

    • Put out their hand for more government assistance then complain about how hard they have it.

  4. Yeah, Kevin Williamson is another smug DH who delights in this form of intellectual trolling. His latest contribution is extolling the virtues of price gouging, ’cause you know folks who didn’t properly prepare for a natural disaster have only themselves to blame and those merchants gouging them are just providing a much needed service.

    Lost on these tools is that your average joe is not an ideologue like they are and see this sort of thing as the obnoxious Gordon Gecko impersonation that it is.

    • Kevin Williamson does say some questionable things . . . but his take on price gouging is not one of them. The market does sort out those who most need a service or item by pricing, fair weather and foul. Selling cheap (the original price) to those who do not really need a service or product in an emergency is no virtue.

      • I’m sure the person on the receiving end of the gouging understands all this when Adam Smith’s invisible hand slaps him in the face. This is the problem, writ large, with corporate shills like Williamson. They basically tell people to eat sh*t and like it and then wash their hands of the blame when somebody like Trump gets elected.

  5. I’d like to hear some discussion about something he said during the Q&A about illegal immigration. It begins here:

    “I’m not as concerned with the economics of illegal immigration in the sense that people who say we have to restrict our labor force in order to maintain a certain wage base. I don’t think that’s correct because this is why you see companies that actually offshore and outsource because they’re looking for cheaper labor. It’s it’s always bewildering to me when conservatives say “well, we have to maintain a wage base by restricting the labor supply.” Then why aren’t you for raising the minimum wage that does exactly the same thing. It restricts the labor supply and raises the wage base.”

    • Nothing more than standard boilerplate recycled again and again and again. I really don’t see why people go to see Shapiro speak, all of his ideas are so orthodox to the point of complete predictability. No thought is given to second or third tier effects.

      Ask yourself, “What’s going to happen if you outsource the jobs and massively dilute the labor pool?”

  6. Great point! The Deplorables movement has been and must be pretty inclusive, not elitist. Ben Shapiro is kind of the straw man for your article since most Deplorables and conservatives are respectful of individual human worth, regardless of income level, skintone, orientations, etc, media misrepresentations notwithstanding.

  7. What’s your point? Is there someone advising kids *not to stay in school, or are you offended by the fact single mothers make up a majority of the poor? Why is it you think conservatives have spent decades offering helpful advice, like “keep your knees together and stay in school”? Would you like to *avoid spending the rest of your life poor? Then LISTEN TO BEN, instead of wasting everyone’s time shooting the messenger because he “scolded” you with the facts.
    I don’t know who you think needs to “pull together” to win what I’m sure is going to turn out to be the war on poverty, but I’ve got a news flash for you. There will always be poor, and society has done all the “pulling together” we need to do to give them the tools to either avoid it or survive it. The rest is up to them.

  8. “Shapiro is not a revelation, he’s just the latest yapping mouth”

    The last election cycle gave us insight like never before in terms of why certain “conservatives” are hyped among ‘gatekeepers’ while others are blocked from rising up. It’s about ‘big club’ billionaires and jockeying to position their mouthpieces to be influencers for preferred candidates, to represent them. I don’t need to go any further than that, the base is as well informed regarding of all of this than it probably has ever been.

  9. So much for taking responsibility for one’s choices in life. Guess that’s not a conservative position any more.

  10. In the words you quoted, and I have to assume that you would use the most offensive words to you that you could find, I saw nothing wrong with what he said. Ben Shapiro is absolutely, 100%, correct.

  11. Remember National Review Online publishing two Kevin Williamson articles saying the unemployed in dead Rust Belt towns deserved their fate. They should pick up and move …or crawl off somewhere and die. NRO liked this theme enough to publish second Williamson article doubling down on first, then a David French article agreeing with Williamson.

    Leaving aside loss of manufacturing jobs, Smith is correct about poverty indicators. There are ways to discuss that which are helpful and ways that are not. Certainly, I would like more “community leaders” in inner cities talking about families, marriage, Presence of fathers and education. But egged on by white liberals, “community leaders” blame it all on racism and preach revenge. I would say poverty is white liberals’ fault ss they enable the hate and misdirection of minority “community leaders.” And of course Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the death knell for the black family in inner cities.

    But did Shapiro do thoughtful analysis, which can be eye-opening, or snarky version?

  12. so if Shapiro is the latest “yapping mouth” what does that make Titus? The latest Alt-lite, blogger who would aspires to “yapping mouth” – dom?

  13. One thing the author wrote is odd. He excuses his friend’s lament that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes by saying the friend “probably just meant federal taxes.” But if that’s true, why does the author think it’s better? He surely can’t mean that it’s moral or just that half of society provides the federal government with all the revenue needed to supply goods and services to the other half.

    • There are Federal Taxes on a vast majority of other things as well. Most people just think taxes to Uncle Sugar only involve a 1040 form, but this is not the case. A good example of this would be excise taxes, such as gasoline, in which everybody pays.

  14. I think Ben Shapiro’s mistake is forgetting a key tenet of conservatism, which is to dignify human beings as individuals instead of just identical organisms forming easily classifiable groups . Not all poor people have children out of wedlock or are lazy, or necessarily practice the other bad habits that lead to poverty. Any number of circumstances can overcome even the most conscientious person: illness, serious accident, death of a spouse, job loss due to disruption of an entire industry.

    However strident, Shapiro’s litany of bad habits and bad decisions are real problems that do lead to indemic poverty, a fact that the Left has tacitly enabled and then leveraged to its benefit for decades. The conservative prescription (intact families, effective schools, vibrant civic engagement, thriving churches, strong work ethic) is not revolutionary but it does mitigate the problem of poverty to a large degree.

  15. I dislike Shapiro but have no problem with what he said in this instance. Of course sometimes saying certain truths and winning elections don’t go together.

  16. In spite of his political science degree, Titus doesn’t seem to know the difference between the non-existent “working class” (this is America, not Europe) and the poor. What Shapiro said is actually right on. I’ve been saying for years that on the first day of kindergarten children should be told that they either stay in school then get a job or drop out and die.

  17. I – a rightwing conservative in religion, politics, economics and social values – agree with this.

    Ben Shapiro makes lots of excellent points; and deserves credit for doing so in a crazy age in which far too few people speak common sense in public. (That, nowadays, takes lots of courage owing to the fierce 24/7 rule of PC bullying.)

    So far, so good. Yet he has strange glaring blindspots of the first importance which cause me to wonder if he is not – like Jonah Goldberg and all the other NeverTrump ‘conservatives’ of Conservatism Inc – chiefly in political discourse for the sake of the career it makes for him.

    A real conservative wants to see conservative values obtain throughout society. He desires society’s chronic moral and intellectual sickness CURED;not permanently with us as a nice target/sounding-board for a well-paid career.

    Yet throughout the General Election campaign Shapiro prided himself on nobly stating that he would not vote for Donald Trump and advising others to follow his example.

    How could a clever man fail to perceive that if Hillary Clinton won, America would be dead and buried, would go the way of Ancient Rome and exist only in the past? Four more years of Obama-ism, and everything Shapiro values, or professes to value, would be as almost completely extirpated as Christianity and pagan religions were in South-West Asia and North Africa after the Muslims swept through those regions in the 7th century and the Middle Ages.

    To suppose that the Constitution and the Rule of Law would be anything but dead letters by 2021, after a Hillary win, was the kind of pretentious thinking which over the years has caused many university teachers to be seen by the general public as self-indulgent dilettantes of merely frivolous cogitation.

    As to the particular point at issue: the failures of the poor. Yes, Shapiro is right so far as he went. It is all-important, if you don’t want to be poor, to be restrained, self-denying, make the most of your talents (as in not dropping out of school) and not have children out of wedlock – which anyway is hard on the children.

    Yet that is only a large part of the picture. There is another very significant part nowadays: the conspiracy of the Haves in present-day society to make more and more middle- and working-class people poor by running an oligarchic system in which Big Money owns most politicians and most of the media, the bureaucracy (including the intelligence agencies of the Deep State) is in turn a client of the Political Class, likewise much of Academe; and all these institutions and agencies connive at a crony corporatist regime which enriches fabulously the well-to-do by impoverishing the others.

    This they do via mass immigration, ‘justified’ by the lunatic doctrines of multiculturalism, and enforced rigorously by fierce Political Correctness; lobby-graft galore; supra-national government (the EU, the TPP, NAFTA &c), which over the period of the past 30 years have transformed the employment-landscape.

    Politicians now leave office with scores of millions of money which they simply cannot have received just from their salaries as Congress-members. Chief executives’ pay in commerce used to be 30 times that of the lowest-wage individual in their companies, now they are 300 times that amount.

    The poor are to blame for this in the same degree as everyone else in a decadent society traveling toward its doom: through lack of spiritual renewal, apathy, political laziness and returning to the Congress corrupt silly people instead of fine upright patriots. But they are not more to blame than (say) Ben Shapiro; and indeed, inasmuch as they may have voted for Donald Trump (by way of a reproof at least to what has been going on for years, however little Trump may now care to deliver of real change), they are less guilty.

    • That’s easy! The billionaires who own Ben’s new website gave $15 million to a Ted Cruz Super PAC during the 2016 Primaries. This is the same Super PAC (Keep The Promises) that also paid EW Erickson for “advertising” and also happened to be run by Dave Barton, Glenn Beck’s business partner.

  18. It took me getting to the end of this piece to realize it wasn’t ironic. I thought personal responsibility was the essence of conservatism. The author looks quite young, so maybe he hasn’t learned how to do nuance very well, but I’m sure there’s a good message for conservative messaging somewhere in here.