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.


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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 Ricochet.com.