Ross Douthat is an excellent columnist, not in the sense that you always agree with his arguments so much as because disagreeing with him helps one refine one’s own counterarguments.
I bring this up because Douthat’s latest, “The Myth of Cosmopolitanism,” made the rounds of my social media feeds over the weekend. And so it should, because he makes a provocative argument. After asserting that both Brexit and the political rise of Donald Trump reveal that the primary cleavage in today’s Western democracies is between between “nativists and globalists,” he proceeds to take the latter category of cosmopolitans (a category that includes Douthat) down a peg or three:
[I[t’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe: because that means our leaders can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.
They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”
By all means read the whole thing. After mulling it over, I would suggest that Douthat’s column is a perfect cocktail consisting of one part insight, one part self-loathing and one part flagrant error.
The insight can be observed by the fact that even MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Douthat’s intellectual doppelganger, makes similar noises to Douthat in his conversation with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner:
[A] cascade of elite failure has produced a comprehensive crisis of authority that has dimmed the trust that people have in each pillar institution. The problem was so deep and so tied to the entire social order and rising inequality in the American model of enlightened meritocratic rule that even competent leadership from President Obama, or a period in which there weren’t the same sort of succession of elite failures, wasn’t going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
I think that was clearly correct. The problems are so deep, and the sense of alienation and distrust so profound. In some ways the book was about America, but I think, if anything, I overassociated the problem as particularly American when it is clearly proving to be a broader problem in the world and particularly I would say the West, even though that’s a problematic concept in this era.
So sure, while I’m not necessarily convinced that this is the defining cleavage of our era (see below), I’m convinced it’s a cleavage.
And yet, never underestimate the self-loathing contained in these kinds of essays. Indeed, in both its tone and subject matter, Douthat’s column reminded me strongly of William Deresiewicz’s denunciation of today’s meritocratic college students as “out-of-touch, entitled little s**ts.” And as I wrote when Deresiewicz published his essay:
In publishing this at The New Republic, Deresiewicz guarantees that he’s hitting the perfect demographic audience. Because I bet you that 99 percent of the people who will read it are people with some combination of elite college affiliation and self-loathing about their privileged position. They’ll want to agree with Deresiewicz.
Replace “The New Republic” with “New York Times” and Deresiewicz with Douthat and you get the same dynamic. It’s not that Douthat isn’t getting at something true in his depictions of some cosmopolitans. It’s that by definition, cosmopolitans are supposed to be open to criticism — so any of them with any sense of self-doubt will seize upon this argument as an example of what’s what’s wrong with their lives.
The final point, however, is that the rooted/cosmopolitan divide is only one of many plaguing Western democracies, and I’m not even sure it’s the most salient right now. Or, to put it another way, try this fun exercise: replace “nativist” with “old” and “cosmopolitan” with “young.” How should you feel about the divide then?
Lest you think I’m jerry-rigging this comparison, consider that according to YouGov, in the Brexit referendum, 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Remain, whereas only 39 percent of voters over 65 did. Of course, that’s not the only cleavage in that vote, but it was clearly a significant one.
Similarly, in the United States, poll after poll shows cosmopolitan Hillary Clinton clobbering other cosmopolitan faux nativist Donald Trump among younger voters. And as Binyamin Appelbaum shows in his latest New York Times story, even the areas of the country where nativists are supposed to warm to Trump display the same young/old demographic breakdown:
All four of Matt Shorraw’s grandparents worked at the Monessen steel mill, but his parents did not. They had seen the writing on the wall. For Mr. Shorraw, 25, the giant mill that once dominated the city is barely a memory….
The city’s younger residents are frustrated that the older generation still dreams of factories. They want to replace some of the old mills with waterfront homes and restaurants. They would like to see the city and the river meet, instead of being almost entirely separated by the old industrial strip.
A few years ago, the city was approached by a developer who wanted to create an indoor sports park in one of the old warehouses. The idea was rejected as unindustrial.
Does talking about a young/old divide make things any different than Douthat’s cosmopolitan/nativist divide? It does in one significant way. Douthat is no doubt correct to point out the biases that cosmopolitans possess. But his implicit counterpoint is that nativists possess some deep reservoir of local knowledge that cosmopolitans overlook. Except that if the cleavage is split by age, it suggests an alternative narrative. Older voters aren’t necessarily better informed about the way the world is where they live. Rather, they are fueled by a sense of nostalgia about the way things used to be — and that nostalgia may or may not be true. The New Yorker’s George Saunders gets at this in his description of Trump supporters:
In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself….
Sometimes it seemed that they were, like me, just slightly spoiled Americans, imbued with unreasonable boomer expectations for autonomy, glory, and ascension, and that their grievances were more theoretical than actual, more media-induced than experience-related.
Indeed, Trump’s whole campaign shtick is predicated on this kind of nostalgia, which contains far more truthiness than truth.
Douthat’s globalist/nativist cleavage has a ring of truth to it, but so does urban/rural and young/old. But I’m not sure those cleavages lead to the same kind of moral fables or object lessons that Douthat is trying to invoke.