On the tribalism of cosmopolitanism

by Ryan Streeter on July 4, 2016. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

I think this Ross Douthat column on elite cosmopolitanism is the best insight to date of all the elites-vs.-populists narratives that have sprung up in the commentariat during the age of Trump, Sanders, and Brexit.

His basic point is that today’s cosmopolitan elites are just as tribal as the populists they battle against, yet their tribalism is something to which they are largely blind, which in turn renders them unable to comprehend what exactly populists are rebelling against:

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens”…

They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.

Today’s cosmopolitans, he writes, are not like those in bygone eras who were happy to disappear into foreign cultures and live amidst the tension and discomfort of competing cultural norms and practices.

I think of my brother in law who runs a fresh water drilling nonprofit in Africa. He lives in Lyon, France, from where he regularly commutes to Africa. He’s feels just as “at home” in French cafes as in back-alley bars in Bangui with distant sounds of gunfire as this or that coup unfolds.  His family is originally from the midwest but he spent his formative years in Mali when his dad ditched his corporate job for the missionary life. He’s worked with Africans and Africa-serving organizations for years. I have learned more about differences between African people and how Africans think and live from his missives and descriptions from whichever  bar he’s in with local drilling rig operators than anything I’ve read coming out of the World Bank. He’s not a gatekeeper or powerbroker among the global elite, but I’ve always considered him more cosmopolitan than the people I know along the I-95 corridor who regularly jet off to London and Paris and have lots to say about global issues.

The problem, Ross writes, is that the I-95 corridor crowd “can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.”

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the goods and benefits of globalism – which I confess I enjoy as someone who migrated over his life from a lower-middle class midwestern upbringing to what most would consider elite status – are either not available to everyday people or not appreciated as much as elites think they should be. It’s hard to appreciate how cheaply you can buy towels and toilet paper at Walmart when your income hasn’t increased much in ten years and there are more boarded up windows in your town than “Coming Soon!” signs.

Meanwhile, the benefits of globalism are piling up in the halls and homes of the crowd Douthat critiques, and unbeknownst to them, everyday people have been observing, watching, and putting the pieces together. And now they’re rebelling. And no one knows exactly where it’s going.