Searching for the Liberal Elite

steve hochstadt

Drawing by Jud Lively

I think there is some misunderstanding about my family background. People who respond to my columns are saying the strangest things about me. So I’m going to say a bit about the Hochstadts to clear things up.

My grandfather, Josef Hochstadt, made a good living as a doctor in Vienna. My grandmother, Amalia Hochstadt, had family connections to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. From families of storekeepers and rabbis, they had reached comfortable upper middle class comfort.

Considering what happened to them, it is hard to say they were in Vienna’s elite. My grandfather was thrown in jail, my grandmother managed to get her son Ernst to the US and her daughter to England, and then they escaped to Shanghai in 1939. The Nazis tried to steal everything they owned, but they were not entirely successful.

My father arrived in New York with a ring on his finger, a few clothes, and a charming accent. At least that’s what my mother says. She was the 16-year-old daughter of clothing store clerks. After they got married, my father became the smallest sort of businessman in New York, and my mother did secretarial work in our suburban house, built by Mr. Levitt. People are critical of suburbs, but I grew up loving suburban life. We were the average Americans — hooray for the middle of the middle class!

Since high school I have entered one kind of elite. I did very well in school. I got a full scholarship to an expensive university that had just started to admit more than a few Jews, paid for by a foundation created by the heirs of General Motors. Thank you, rich capitalists!

At Brown University the scholarship kids found each other, and we met people we never knew before, families of wealth, power, and fame, who owned the banks they used, who endowed scholarships for people like us, who got buildings named after them. That was my first experience with the elite.

My wife and I have been teachers for 30 years, mostly sharing one job, one salary, and two kids. College professors do pretty well, although not as well as doctors, lawyers, MBAs, or accountants. As long as kids keep going to college, our jobs are not threatened. Our family has gradually moved from a small apartment to a small house to a big old house, like those we used to look at longingly on our cross-country family trips.

I think that ought to be enough personal information to judge whether I ever was part of any “elite”. Exiles, immigrants, middle-class Jews in the suburbs and a lifetime of teaching don’t add up to elite. My only elite quality, the intellectual skills that allowed me to become a professor, is apparently held against me by many people who dismiss learned people as living in an “ivory tower”. My opinions about matters of history, politics, and society are not as valuable as a plumber’s.

The funny thing is that the elite is never liberal. In every society I have lived in or studied, the elite ferociously protects its privileges. They fight against things like taxes on the rich, restrictions on their businesses, programs to help the poor. For example, based on exit polls in the 2004 Presidential election, the more money voters made, the more likely that they were Republican; voters who made over $200,000 were 62% Republican and 37% Democrat.

So when I see myself labeled as part of the “liberal elite”, and more often hear people talk about the “liberal elite”, I know they are trying hard not to think about all the people they know who are liberal but not elite, or elite but not liberal. Rather than consider the content of my argument, they retreat into an imaginary world. It’s too bad that so many people throw up walls around their minds, with labels like “liberal elite” or “ivory tower”, so they won’t have to think about what they already know.

Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007). Republished with permission from Taking Back Our Lives.


  1. Evan W says

    After reading this I gave a hearty “Fuck yeah!” Steve. Sad to see only negative comments so far but alas…

    re: Darrel
    Every social group tries to “impose” their set of views over others, and in modern civilization we have moved away from killing each other over it to… representative government. Huh, ok. How about I point out that “conservative elites” (these are just the people with ALL THE MONEY) and “conservative moderates” and every other group of people currently not in power, want to impose their beliefs on others from Flat Tax/Tax complainers, small gov’t/get rid of social programs, this is a Christian Nation!, gay marriage is wrong, drug prohibition works, that the news media is liberally biased IN THEIR REPORTING (which is false! Liberally biased in their personal views yes, but studies show that their reporting is neutral), I could go on. Of course liberals are “imposing” their views on you, they are in power at the moment! Maybe you should instead be looking at ways to make their ‘shitty regulations (that save your life) better, instead of demonizing them for no good or kind reason.

    Re: Joshua
    Come on, really? “Invalidate your opinion?” No. “Do you immediatley suppose that a Plumber is your intellectual inferior?” No, just that I wouldn’t expect him to know anything about rational choice theory much like how he wouldn’t expect me to know anything about plumbing or pipe fitting.

  2. Joshua says

    I am sure you are a good an descent family man but you have made wild accusations against those who disagree with your world view with little to no supporting evidence. You as an acedemic should be above ad hom attacks and other faulty logic arguments. Without a doubt , you are a far more edjucated man than me. You are probably a lot more intellegent than me. Your one failing is you allow yourself to be blinded by ideology. Like Hammering a nail with your eyes closed, you have all the tools and the knowledge to use them effectivley but don’t. Why? You tell me. Maybe that is why people accuse you of Acedemic Elitism, knowing of your credentials, what else could be the issue? Do you allow your students to challenge your opinion in the clasroom ? Probably not, and that is how it should be , you are there to teach. This is not the classroom.

    ” My opinions about matters of history, politics, and society are not as valuable as a plumber’s.”

    Whether this was intentional or not, I happen to be a Master Plumber (3rd generation). As a Plumber am I incapable of reading Aristotle, Plato , Neitzsche , Sun Tzu , Machiavelli and Kierekgaard? How about Thucydides , Tacitus and Herodotus? Does being a Plumber invalidate my opinion ? Do you immediatley suppose that a Plumber is your intellectual inferior? The tone you took here could reflect intellectual arrogance , It reminds me Of Aristotles opinion towards “Mechanics” in Politics. Perhaps I read too much into that statement or your classical edjucation is showing.

    You possess a much larger knowledge base than me, thus you will know and understand the Nuances of your speciality BUT that does not make your opinions infallible even in your speciality, you still have to “show your work”. As a Master Plumber, I am not right 100% of the time, and I am aways learning new things, there is no shame in that, as many surly old plumbers have pointed out to me through the years.

    Intellectualy Honesty is a quality that all people should have , especially an Acedemic.

  3. DarrelB says

    Mr. Hochstatdt:

    You make a basic error in your premise regarding what “liberal elite” means. It is not an expression of financial standing but rather intellectual. Liberal elites are people who think they know everything about everything. One only need look to the White House to see them. They think they have all the answers and therefore they are going to impose their beliefs on everyone else. What car you drive, what your health insurance will be, appropriate ways to use your land and property, even down to what kind of light bulb you can use. If you want to find them it is quite easy. They are in two places: news and entertainment media and academia. Let me suggest two places you might start: NBC News and the faculty lounge at Harvard University.

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