There was a time when “coastal” was an innocent geographical adjective, as in “coastal islands” or “coastal flooding.” It referred to events and places located on large bodies of saltwater. But somewhere along the way, “coastal” gained a sinister, shameful connotation.
Populists and pseudo-populists have long fulminated against elites. But these days, the only thing worse than being one of the elite is being one of the “coastal elite.”
This epithet is often flung by Republican politicians intent on showing their solidarity with ordinary folks. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas scorns Democrats as the party of the “coastal elite.”
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri issued a press release claiming that the Green New Deal “would ship jobs overseas, benefit coastal elites.” During January’s runoff elections for the Senate, the Georgia GOP decried the efforts of “coastal elites” to influence Georgia voters.
But the insult does not come only from conservatives. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a proud socialist, complains that “in many ways the Democratic Party has become a party of the coastal elites.” Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, an Iowa Democrat running for the U.S. Senate seat long held by Republican Chuck Grassley, says the incumbent “has changed from an Iowa farmer to just another coastal elite.”
The denigration of elites is a familiar and understandable practice, which American politicians have been indulging for a couple of centuries, at least. As the journalist Michael Kinsley once wrote, we live “in a society where the only snobbery with any real power is reverse snobbery.”
Politicians don’t brag that they went to Ivy League schools or came from money. Instead, they do everything they can think of to highlight (or invent) their humble origins and bonds with the common people. George W. Bush, who went to Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, clung to his Texas accent to obscure his posh pedigree.
In reality, conservative politicians don’t mind people who are elite — meaning wealthy, influential, well-educated and well-connected — if they are also conservative. On the contrary, they adore noncoastal billionaires like Charles Koch, Richard Uihlein, Ken Griffin and Timothy Mellon, who all graduated from top-tier schools and support right-wing causes with lavish sums of money. Often, “elite” is just a Republican synonym for “liberal.”
So I’m not puzzled by the attacks on elites. It’s the coastal part that mystifies me. For one thing, it often betrays a clanking lack of self-awareness. Cruz lives in Houston, which is a half-hour drive from the Gulf of Mexico — making it, yes, a coastal city. The Georgia GOP didn’t mention that the state has 100 miles abutting the Atlantic Ocean.
Come to think of it, many of the states that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 also have endless supplies of salt air. South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas are all coastal states. One of the reddest states of all, Alaska, has nearly 34,000 miles of coastline, which is more than all the lower 48 states combined.
It’s true that several blue states possess oceanfront property, notably California and New York. But there is no obvious reason to think that their liberal orientation is the fault of their coastline. Being on the ocean, by itself, doesn’t seem to have any predictable effect on voting patterns.
Those who attack “coastal” elites seem to forget that there are plenty of liberals in flyover country. Chicago is a long way from any ocean, but that didn’t stop Trump from regularly lambasting its mayor. Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1972.
Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, all landlocked, all have Democratic governors and Democratic-controlled legislatures. Vermont, which stretches along the east coast of Lake Champlain, regularly elects Bernie Sanders.
Maybe politicians think using the term will ingratiate themselves with Americans who nurse an envious resentment of people lucky enough to live near an ocean. Maybe they use “coastal” because they get tired of listing all the cities they loathe, like San Francisco and New York.
Or maybe they just think the “elite” charge sounds more damning with a modifier attached, even if it doesn’t make much sense. But seriously, if being an “elite” is despicable, is the coastal variety really worse than the intermountain version or the Great Lakes type?
One of our beloved patriotic hymns says God has shed his grace on us “from sea to shining sea.” If you’ve got a problem with coastal places and people, you’ve got a problem with America.