Limousine Liberalism Goes Mainstream

Suburbs are the battleground in American politics. Republicans continue to increase their hold on rural America and Democrats continue to dominate the cities. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), when it was clear the Democrats would retake the House, remarked, “We’ve got to address the suburban women problem, because it’s real.” Karl Rove sounded a similar alarm at the Washington Examiner’s Sea Island Summit.

The new suburban problem defies the old logic of American politics, where we learned to expect the upwardly mobile to favor the lower taxes, limited government, and local control offered by the Republicans.

Instead, the “suburban problem” appears to be limousine liberalism gone mainstream. In the 1970s, limousine liberals forced busing while sending their own kids to tony private schools. They willingly paid high taxes that crippled small business, among other things.

Today’s limousine liberals have different policies, but signal their membership with similar hypocrisies. They define themselves by “values” more than by wealth, though they are mostly well off or, at least, better off than most. They bemoan the racism and other phobias in America while pricing the middle class and minorities out of their school districts; they drive SUVs; heat and air condition large mansions while worrying about global warming; they favor amnesty and open borders, benefit from its cheap labor, yet defer the costs elsewhere; they live family life in a pretty traditional way, but they are happy to embrace policies and mores that unwind the family for the less fortunate. Despite high levels of church attendance for themselves and their neighborhood friends, they worry that faithful Christians are sources of misogyny, homophobia, and patriarchal power, and they vote to undermine the role of faith in politics accordingly.

University Educated Elites
The midterms show, as Jeremy Carl suggests, that the “Democrats are the party of the elite, not the middle class.” Writing for First Things, Darel Paul noted how the richest House districts in 12 different states shifted from Republican to Democrat. A Washington Post analysis of the midterms shows that Democrats control 37 of the richest 43 districts in the country.

These observations, while true, do not go far enough. Today’s elite limousine liberals are above all products of the modern university and its corresponding corporate culture. The money makes them “limousine,” but the university education makes them liberal. Democrats appear to have won college graduates by approximately 30 points in 2018 (compared with Democrats winning the same demographic by 6 last time they won the House in 2006).

Carl proves his elite charge by looking at a couple examples of districts and counties that flipped hard from Republicans to Democrats. It just as easily proves the education charge. Johnson County in Kansas, for instance, has been trending for Democrats for the past cycles and now provided the margin of victory for the Democrat in the Kansas governor’s race. Fully 61 percent of its residents have a higher education degree. Some neighborhoods around Kansas City such as Mission Hills (91 percent with advanced degrees), Prairie Village (75 percent), and Leawood (79 percent) far exceed the Kansas average of 40 percent. It turns out that nearly half the population in the county works in administration, management, business, education, and technology.

Voting patterns track with income numbers, but college degrees are drivers of the suburban change.

Take, for instance, Colorado’s seven congressional districts. Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, a suburban district with above average educational attainment, just flipped from Republicans to Democrats

South Carolina, a state whose average educational attainment rests at 35.6 percent, just flipped District 1 from Republican to Democrat. Beaufort and Charleston Counties, two of the largest counties in the district, have the highest educational attainment in the state with 48 percent and 49 percent, respectively. Examples could be multiplied.

The well-to-do neighborhoods of educated elites increasingly mirror the identity politics ethic of the university, where students learn the correct way of thinking on sexual inequality, gay marriage, transgender rights, and the gamut of diversity issues. They can enjoy their wealth without guilt precisely because their hearts are in the right place. The “diploma divide” drives the suburban problem.

These college graduates work in corporate offices of tech companies, banking and finance, and other upscale white collar concerns. Republicans have always been happy to welcome such enterprises as pro-growth, but they bring with them a cultural change brought from the university. “Hard America” is not what it once was. And now, it is coming home to roost.

Changes in Universities, Changes in Electorate
This new elite is a class held together through its opinions more than its money. It honors many of the same things and dishonors many of the same things. What they dishonor or find deplorable is most evident when Republicans hold all branches of government, and this is when they are most likely to act on their dishonoring.

The fact that the modern university fails to educate its students in writing, civics, or the any other particular skill makes universities vulnerable to criticism. Conservatives have long lamented how the modern university undermines the traditions of Western Civilization, while universities produce ever more radical fare. Victories for the Left will become ever easier to achieve so long as our Leftist universities occupy unchallenged space in American life. State legislatures need to develop ways citizens can work around colleges and universities, so that market pressure can be applied on colleges and universities to change. Other ideas for reform are also in the air.

It is vital for Republican lawmakers to parse out the general suburban problem from the budding limousine problem beneath it and make allies accordingly.

Suburbanites are far from monolithic in their views. Republicans need to think through how to make appeals to suburbanites without alienating their most reliable voters. They need to drive wedges between factions attached to the Democratic coalition and build a newer, wider coalition in the name of American interests. Trumpian policies are a good place to start, but it will not prove sufficient over the long run. These must be combined with a tone suited to include suburban voters and with some policies that appeal to their interests and are suitable to their sense of honor. More explicit appeals to the interests of inner-city African-Americans would help in the cities and the suburbs.

Without such improvements, American conservatives are bound to go the way of Britain’s Tories—a party in power but one which cannot govern and which always fights on the turf of the Left. Limousine liberalism is going mainstream, but it is part of a naturally fractious coalition that can be broken and defeated.

Photo Credit: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

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About Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University. His book The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies was published in 2020 by Baylor University Press.