The Democrats Have an Elitism Problem. Sheldon Whitehouse Is the Latest Example | Opinion

"It's a long tradition in Rhode Island."

That was Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's response to a question from a local journalist about his membership of the Bailey's Beach Club, a private and all-white beach club in tony Newport.

That a person of leadership in America belongs to such a club is outrageous. That a Democratic Senator who has spent quite a bit if time denouncing systemic racism would is doubly so.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE, his wife & their families have been members of an all-white private beach club for decades.

“It’s a long tradition in Rhode Island & there are many of them & I think we just need to work our way through the issues,” @SenWhitehouse said https://t.co/EA7rnkRiAX pic.twitter.com/gwaphKBYWq

— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) June 20, 2021

"We can and must do better to root out systemic racism in its many forms and meet America's full promise of justice for all," the Senator said in a press release last year.

The hypocrisy is enraging. But I for one am not surprised by it. Because this episode exposed something much deeper than Whitehouse's own hypocrisy. It exposed a class bias the Democratic Party has more generally, one that's all too often to be found lurking just behind platitudes about equality and justice.

Bailey's Beach Club is one of the most exclusive clubs in one of the most exclusive towns in America; Taylor Swift wrote "Last Great American Dynasty" about the woman who used to own her Newport mansion. Bailey's Beach Club represents nothing short of the pinnacle of WASP elitism. "There are people still living in Newport who have not only never held jobs, but literally never met people outside their class who didn't work for them," a local man told the New York Times in 2003, when it profiled the club.

Exclusive and restricted clubs like Bailey's Beach have long been used to entrench racial and class inequality, serving as a means for the wealthy elites of the Gilded Age and beyond to enjoy recreational activities and socialize with one another away from the lower-classes and other elements of society—Black folks, Jews, and Catholics—who they deemed beneath them.

Sheldon Whitehouse
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., attends the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images

By limiting membership only to the already powerful and wealthy, these clubs reinforced—and continue to reinforce—existing inequalities, allowing the wealthiest people in our country to further entrench their power by denying would-be interlopers access to their social, political, and business networks. And they are not exclusively peopled by Republicans, either.

All of this is why Whitehouse's membership is making waves; people are right to be outraged that a sitting U.S. Senator belongs to an all-white club, even that an all-white club exists at all in 2021. It should go without saying that both are unacceptable.

But it also should not come as a surprise. That a Democratic politician would put access to wealth and power above racial equality is only shocking if you think wealthy capitalists have your best interest at heart. No matter if there is a D or an R in front of their name, capital is gonna capital.

Despite their lofty rhetoric, expecting wealthy white liberals to change the systems of power which benefit them is a fool's errand.

It's not surprising to me that Sheldon Whitehouse, the scion of a wealthy and prominent New England family, would belong to a club like this and see no problem with it. It's how people like him have kept power for more than a century—or, as he says, "a long tradition."

And of course, he's not alone. The concept of the "limousine liberal" is nothing new; it has been used effectively by opponents on the Right and Left to highlight Democratic elitism. Back in the 1970s, White Bostonians attacked then-Senator Edward Kennedy for his perceived hypocrisy on bussing, pointing out the blue-blooded Kennedy sent his kids to private schools rather than integrated schools. And the classism of elite liberals has in the intervening years found more subtle expressions, such as former President Barack Obama's infamous words about working class voters in the Rustbelt who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Democrats seem increasingly willing to fight battles that benefit a new, highly educated base, rather than their working class voters of yore. It's undeniable at this point: Folks like Sheldon Whitehouse do not have the same interests as my white working class Appalachian family, just as they don't have the same interests of Black working class people. Even if Bailey's Beach diversified its members now, it wouldn't change the lives of the vast majority of Black people in this country who would still be prohibited from joining based on the cost alone. Sounds like a hollow victory to me.

No matter how many platitudes and mantras they may repeat, wealthy white liberals are, at the end of the day, wealthy and white. Their interests are not the same as those of us in the working class.

Obviously it is disgusting that a segregated club—whether by policy or by practice—exists in the 21st century. I am appalled, as everyone should be. It's a huge problem that Bailey's Beach Club's membership isn't diverse enough. But it's also a problem that it exists at all.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes about the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy based in Tennessee.

The views in this article are the writer's own.