Quote Card by Opinion.

If you’ve heard of Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show,” then you may have heard of liberal comedian Jordan Klepper, who has a special segment: “Jordan Klepper Fingers the Pulse.” In this segment, Klepper goes to conservative events in order to speak with Trump supporters, COVID disbelievers, election deniers and other interesting members of the communities he visits. 

Klepper poses what seem to be basic and easy questions, like if they believe gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples, to these people in order to expose their underlying lack of understanding on a given topic. This is all done in a comedic and somewhat mocking way and is meant to appeal to liberal audiences. However, upon further analysis, it becomes rather evident to viewers that Klepper simply exploits these people’s lack of education. This showcases a sinister elitism that’s both unproductive and harmful to healthy political discourse.

Similar mockery can be found on the right side of the aisle. We’ve seen this a lot with Steven Crowder, a conservative commentator who sets up racist, transphobic and openly outrageous claims on college campuses in order to provoke college students. Prepared and ready to go (usually with a binder of cherry-picked facts and statistics), Crowder desperately seeks to “debate” contentious topics. Shamelessly, the 35-year-old YouTuber usually argues with undergraduate students who are on the way to class, so the “debates” are never on equal playing grounds. He corners these unprepared students with a chain of questions, usually in a manner that’s far too quick and disconnected to derive any argumentative value. From this, we get blatantly misogynistic videos, such as one titled “College Chick GOES NUTS,” which focuses on Crowder’s denial of rape culture on college campuses. 

This twisted obsession with lecturing and talking down to people who have opposing views is harmful, and it only sparks contempt across the political spectrum. Thus, while Crowder and Klepper find themselves in opposite political circles, they both share a clickbait-oriented style of cheap debate that only villainizes and taunts the other side. In that way, polarization is fostered. It’s a vicious, classist cycle.

However, there is a crucial difference between when the left and right employ this taunting tactic and: for the left, it’s not only counterintuitive, it’s exploitative and hypocritical, given that the left cares deeply about socioeconomic equality. It’s targeting people who are, generally speaking, comparatively less privileged and educated. It’s an elaborate elitism contradictory to the core pillars on which the left prides itself.

Most of the time, leftist theories (from Marxism to modern Feminism and Gender theory) are inaccessible to the people who may benefit from them, lower income and disproportionately marginalized groups, because thoroughly understanding them typically requires higher education or careful and time-consuming study. That inaccessibility can be intimidating in itself. Noam Chomsky, an important contemporary figure in philosophy, and a staunch leftist himself, linguistics and politics, has criticized the complex and theory-based nature of leftist political thought because it fails to empower those who are truly oppressed. During a talk at Leiden University, Chomsky harshly criticized the 20th-century French postmodern intellectual circle, stating that these professors would be upset if a plumber was to understand their theory and that many of their convoluted theories could be stated in mere monosyllables.

So, how do we stop this divide? Do we need to close an educational gap of some sort? While some of this can be attributed to an inequitable and classist schooling system that consistently fails American working-class families, it’s not as much about under-resourced education as it is about the cultural divide between urban and rural working-class communities. In rural areas especially, the working class is vulnerable to misinformation that leads to right-wing ideologies. The behavioral inertia of tradition, systemic white supremacy and generational beliefs breed a culture that’s inherently different from the one found in more urban areas, where there is the possibility for more direct exposure to diverse people, societies and institutions.

Overall, this rural susceptibility is quite dangerous and can be perpetuated by the media. A lot of neutral and somewhat fact-based media, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are viewed as complicated, driving people to more accessible and plain-language news sources such as Fox News. Elitism is not the answer to healing this divide.

The price of this misguided movement can be immensely self-harming. Consider former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election win. Following former President Barack Obama, who is a precise (to say the least) and sophisticated individual, the right clasped onto a personality as charismatic, foul and uncalculated as Trump’s.

For a significant segment of the working class, they found a fiery American leader that they can identify with in terms of his accessible and even entertaining speeches. That’s why, when confronted with apparent paradoxes and lies during Trump’s presidency, his supporters remained loyal; Trump represented this new revolutionary persona in D.C. that they trusted. They found their ideological haven.

Of course, Trump is not the voice of the working class. He’s a billionaire who works to satisfy corporate needs. But it’s his unorthodox approach to politics that makes him such a sensational persona to the working class. His speeches weren’t tethered with intellectual gymnastics. This goes to show how messy and mystical the object of ideology really is, because a mild examination of Trump’s priorities showcases a moral bankruptcy and a careless demeanor towards the working class, yet he still maintains a great influence because of his plain language approach. Under a leader like Trump, the working class is heading directly toward its demise.

Nevertheless, hope persists. 

It’s important to consider that another substantial segment of the working class supports more leftist candidates, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Sanders’ appeal isn’t founded in his quirky personality as much as it is in his ongoing fight for the working class. His speeches are not cryptic or subtle (which neoliberals seem to suffer from), but rather clear, repetitive and passionate. In an important sense, Sanders is taking some of that impenetrable leftist theory and presenting it in a more populist and concrete policy-focused way. This is a huge part of his appeal and it should be emulated by other Democrats.

In the end, it’s important to remember that elitism is an egocentric defense mechanism employed by individuals who lack the empathy and understanding needed for human progress; it only perpetuates hate in a country that already has a lot of political tension. The left must focus on how to unite the working class under candidates that actually prioritize their needs while avoiding any form of intellectual hazing or gatekeeping. Only then can they better connect with the conservative bases.

Ammar Ahmad is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at ammarz@umich.edu.